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Rod Aydelotte  

China Spring Kolby Killough on the mound in the third inning against China Spring Hillsboro.

Barr, Mueller trade barbs as Russia probe rift goes public

WASHINGTON — Private tensions between Justice Department leaders and special counsel Robert Mueller’s team broke into public view in extraordinary fashion Wednesday as Attorney General William Barr pushed back at the special counsel’s “snitty” complaints over his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation report.

Testifying for the first time since releasing Mueller’s report, Barr faced sharp questioning from Senate Democrats who accused him of making misleading comments and seeming at times to be President Donald Trump’s protector as much as the country’s top law enforcement official.

The rift fueled allegations that Barr has spun Mueller’s findings in Trump’s favor and understated the gravity of Trump’s behavior. The dispute is certain to persist, as Democrats push to give Mueller a chance to answer Barr’s testimony with his own later this month.

Barr separately informed the House Judiciary Committee that he would not appear for its scheduled hearing Thursday because of the panel’s insistence that he be questioned by committee lawyers as well as lawmakers. That refusal sets the stage for Barr to possibly be held in contempt of Congress.

At Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee session, Barr spent hours defending his handling of Mueller’s report against complaints from Democrats and the special counsel himself. He said, for instance, that he had been surprised that Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump had tried to obstruct justice, and that he had felt compelled to step in with his own judgment that the president committed no crime.

“I’m not really sure of his reasoning,” Barr said of Mueller’s obstruction analysis, which neither accused the president of a crime nor exonerated him. If Mueller wasn’t prepared to make a decision on whether to bring charges, Barr added, “then he shouldn’t have investigated. That was the time to pull up.”

Barr was also perturbed by a private letter Mueller, a longtime friend, sent him complaining that the attorney general had not properly portrayed the special counsel’s findings in a four-page memo summarizing the report’s main conclusions. The attorney general called the note “a bit snitty.”

“I said: ‘Bob, what’s with the letter? Just pick up the phone and call me if there is an issue,’ ” Barr said.

Barr downplayed the special counsel’s complaints, saying they were mostly about process, not substance, while raising a few objections of his own in the other direction. He said that Mueller did not, as requested, identify grand jury material in his report when he submitted it, slowing the public release of the report as the Justice Department worked to black out sensitive information.

He also insisted that once Mueller submitted his report, the special counsel’s work was done and the document became “my baby.”

“It was my decision how and when to make it public,” Barr said. “Not Bob Mueller’s.”

Wednesday’s contentious Senate hearing gave Barr his most extensive opportunity to date to defend recent Justice Department actions, including a press conference before the report’s release and his decision to release a brief summary letter two days after getting the report.

But the hearing, which included three Democratic presidential candidates, also laid bare the partisan divide over the handling of Mueller’s report.

Some Republicans, in addition to defending Trump, focused on the president’s 2016 Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton’s email practices and what they argued has been a lack of investigation of them.

Televisions across the West Wing, including one just off the Oval Office used by the president, were tuned to cable coverage of Barr’s testimony. Trump told advisers he was pleased with Barr’s combative stance with Democratic senators, according to an administration official and a Republican close to the White House who were not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.

Trump tweeted Wednesday that the probe was “The greatest con-job in the history of American Politics!” He has told those around him that, after being disappointed by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, he has found an attorney general loyal to him.

Democrats also moved to exploit the daylight between Barr and Mueller to impugn the attorney general’s credibility. Some also called for Barr to resign, or to recuse himself from Justice Department investigations that have been spun off from Mueller’s probe.

“I think the American public has seen quite well you are biased in this situation and not objective and that is the conflict of interest,” said Sen. Kamala Harris of California, one of the Democratic contenders for president.

They pressed him on whether he had misled Congress last month when, at an unrelated congressional hearing, he professed ignorance about complaints from the special counsel’s team. Barr suggested he had not lied because he was in touch with Mueller himself and not his team.

Unswayed, Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont said, “Mr. Barr, I feel your answer was purposefully misleading, and I think others do too.”

Neither side broke much new ground Wednesday on the specifics of Mueller’s investigation, though Barr did articulate a robust defense of Trump as he made clear his firm conviction that there was no prosecutable case against the president for obstruction of justice.

The attorney general asserted that Trump was “falsely accused” during the investigation and that the president therefore lacked the criminal intent required to commit obstruction. Democrats seized on multiple instances in Mueller’s report in which Trump was said to have asked aides to lie or sought to seize control of the probe, but in each instance, Barr said Trump’s conduct wasn’t a crime.

“I didn’t exonerate. I said that we did not believe that there was sufficient evidence to establish an obstruction offense which is the job of the Justice Department, and the job of the Justice Department is now over,” Barr said.

He was asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s top Democrat, about an episode recounted in Mueller’s report in which Trump pressed White House Counsel Don McGahn to seek the removal of Mueller on conflict-of-interest grounds. Trump later asked McGahn to deny a press report that such a directive had been given.

Barr responded, “There’s something very different firing a special counsel outright, which suggests ending an investigation, and having a special counsel removed for conflict — which suggests you’re going to have another special counsel.”

editor's pick
Ascension Providence offers procedure to prevent strokes new to Waco
 Brooke Crum  / 

Ascension Providence now offers an alternative treatment for patients with atrial fibrillation who must take blood thinners to reduce their risk of stroke.

It is the first use of technology of its kind in Waco, Ascension Providence officials said.

In conjunction with Waco Cardiology Associates, Ascension Providence expanded its Structural Heart Program to offer this procedure, called Watchman. Ascension recently invested $6 million upgrading its catheterization laboratory, part of the expanded program.

“The procedure itself is used to address folks with atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is a rapid rate of contraction of the upper chamber of the heart,” said Dr. Brian Becker, Ascension Providence chief medical officer. “That incomplete contraction of the top part of the heart can reduce the ability for the heart to empty all the blood in that chamber. This particular component closes off the area where blood can collect and clot.”

Becker said people with atrial fibrillation often are placed on blood thinners to prevent blood from clotting in the area the new procedure addresses. Clots can travel from the heart to the head and cause a stroke.

Waco Cardiology Associates make a small cut in the upper leg or groin area and inserts a catheter, or flexible tube, into a vein. Then they introduce the Watchman device into the vein and transport it into the heart with the catheter, where it is placed into the “outpouching” of the left atrial appendage, where clotting could occur, Becker said. The device or implant varies in size, depending on the patient’s ultrasound.

In time, heart cells grow over the implant, sealing off the appendage and preventing blood from collecting there and clotting. After 45 days, patients can stop taking blood thinners, like warfarin, if an ultrasound shows the appendage is blocked, Becker said.

“Some patients don’t do well on blood thinners,” Becker said. “Others can be on a medication that counteracts that blood thinner so that it’s not effective. Some folks have a job that prohibits them being on a blood thinner. Those would be physical jobs where they may bump or bruise themselves.”

Internal bleeding also is a risk for patients on blood thinners, he said. The cost of blood thinners is a factor, as well, because some patients must take them for the rest of their lives.

“Studies have shown that with the placement of this device in about two years it’s paid for itself just in the cost of medicine,” he said.

The Watchman procedure has been available since 2015, and more than 50,000 devices have been implanted in patients, Becker said. Typically, patients stay in the hospital overnight after the hourlong procedure, and 99 percent of them stop taking blood thinners within a year of the surgery. It is Medicare-approved.

“Our goal here at Ascension Providence is to try to provide all the services that we can locally,” Becker said. “Oftentimes, that means going to Dallas or Houston or Austin or San Antonio to get specialized procedures done. That is a huge inconvenience to patients. If it’s something we can safely bring into our facility and give to our community — that access point for procedures or testing — that’s vitally important for us in Waco to be able to provide for those folks not only in Waco but in our surrounding communities, as well.”

Baylor Scott & White in Temple also offers the service, according to the Watchman website.

editor's pick
Retired attorney sues insurance company over policy proceeds
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

A prominent retired Waco attorney is suing an insurance company in a $425,000 dispute over the terms of an insurance policy.

John W. Fulbright filed a lawsuit Tuesday against American General Life Insurance Co., alleging the company breached its contract, engaged in deceptive trade practices and violated standards of “good faith and fair dealing.”

The suit, filed in 414th State District Court on Fulbright’s behalf by attorney Colin H. O’Neill of the Fulbright Winniford law firm, seeks economic damages, treble damages under the Deceptive Trade Practices Act and exemplary damages.

“The lawsuit involves a civil dispute on the terms of an endowment insurance policy with AIG (American General Life Insurance Co.),” O’Neill said. “The dispute arises upon John Fulbright reaching the age of 95 years, at which time benefits became due and owing.”

A spokesman with the AIG corporate office in New York did not return a phone message Wednesday.

According to the lawsuit, Fulbright bought an endowment insurance policy that said “the company will pay the net cash value to the owner on the maturity date if the insured is living on that date.”

There are numerous letters between Fulbright and AIG stating the value of the policy is $575,267.75, according to the lawsuit.

“To plaintiffs dismay and surprise, he received a check in the mail in early December dated 12-06-18 from AIG only in the amount of $150,000 despite the language of the policy and the representations of AIG,” according to the lawsuit. “Also, no correspondence or explanation was provided with the check.”

Fulbright got a letter from AIG a few days later that said “during a recent quality audit, we discovered there was a system problem that included your policy. When we processed the maturity quote, the system provided an incorrect maturity value.”

Fulbright has notes going back to December 2002 about representations of the cash value, the suit states.

“AIG provided nothing other than the blanket statement of a ‘system error’ to attempt to explain away a difference of $425,267.75 in payment under the policy,” according to the suit.

The lawsuit alleges AIG violated the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act by engaging “in false, misleading and/or deceptive acts or practices that plaintiff relied on to his detriment.”

Fulbright, a World War II veteran, was licensed to practice law in Texas in 1949. He practiced law in Waco many years and retired 20 years ago at the age of 75.

Texas House approves property tax reform bill, setting up school bill negotiations

The Texas House gave preliminary approval to a priority property tax reform package this week, teeing it up for negotiations with the Senate after impelling the upper chamber to act on an omnibus school finance measure.

Together, the education and tax overhaul bills have been the top policy issues of the 2019 legislative session, and they are ultimately expected to be ironed out behind the scenes — and perhaps simultaneously.

Tuesday’s vote marked a small milestone for House leadership, which has muscled its must-pass budget, public education and tax reform bills to passage, all before the last month of session begins. But the House and Senate will next need to reconcile notable differences among the three measures.

“We have done our job in the House — and we have sent everything over to the Senate,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, author of the school finance bill.

Senate Bill 2 was approved on a 107-40 margin after a half-dozen hours of debate. More than 20 Democratic lawmakers broke party ranks to support the measure, which has garnered adamant opposition from city and county officials since its introduction.

A top imperative for state leaders, SB 2 offers wholesale reforms to the property tax system and limits the ability of cities, counties and other taxing units to raise property tax revenue. As passed, it forces cities, counties and emergency service districts to hold an election to approve raising 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year. Hospitals and community colleges have an 8% election trigger in the version passed by the House.

“Texas taxpayers are frustrated by rising property taxes. They’re often confused by the process, and many are scared of losing their homes,” said state Rep. Dustin Burrows, the bill’s author and chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. While the bill makes the tax process more transparent, “it does not lower anyone’s property taxes.”

“It was never designed to do that, and I’ve never promised anyone that it did,” said Burrows, a Lubbock Republican.

The full Senate is expected to vote Friday on its comprehensive school finance reform legislation, which aims to increase the base funding for each Texas student, increase teacher pay, provide money for full-day pre-K for low-income students, and allow for long-term property tax relief.

The Senate Education Committee fast-tracked a vote Wednesday, a day after House lawmakers voted through their property tax reform bill, which was made contingent on school finance reform also passing this session.

Local officials said the revenue caps would impede budgeting and could hurt funding for local police and fire departments. Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said the 3.5% cap would be only a slight improvement over the initially proposed 2.5% cap.

Local reaction

“It’s still an arbitrary cap that our budget and finance staff calculated would have cost us $2.5 million in revenue last year,” Deaver said. “That would impact our ability to address infrastructure and streets, and it doesn’t provide municipal tax relief to our citizens.”

Deaver said he agrees both school financing and property taxes require reform, but feels this is an “inappropriate” way to go about it.

“We have hearings on our tax rate every year, and as long as I’ve been mayor we’ve never had a single citizen come about this,” Deaver said.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said the legislation is “short-sighted,” and is hampering the county’s budgeting process.

“Our departments are putting together their budgets, but until this is resolved, we can’t promise anything beyond what we’re already promising,” Felton said, referring to county commissioners’ budget deliberations.

Despite the increasing costs of providing services, the county has cut its property tax four times in the past five years, primarily because of higher property values, he said.

He wants the county to maintain a strong cash position and a strong bonding position, something the cap may threaten, Felton said.

“Which is why my blood pressure up,” he said. “We can’t do any number-crunching until we get this resolved. I’m glad we’re fixing school finance, as it is a tremendous burden on taxpayers. But I believe there will be consequences for cities and counties the Legislature is not expecting.”

Different versions

There are few differences between the House’s version of the property tax package and the bill passed by the Senate earlier this month. Perhaps the most significant point is that the House offers community colleges and hospitals an 8% election trigger, while the Senate has reduced it to 3.5%.

In addition, the Senate had required voters in small taxing units — those that bring in less than $15 million combined sales and property tax revenue — to opt in to some of the bill’s provisions. The House’s revision eliminated that definition and inserted a new allowance to let all taxing units increase their property tax levy by $500,000 without triggering an election.

The Senate also permitted the costs of providing indigent defense services to be factored into the revenue growth calculation. The House removed that language but included a similar clause that protects cities and counties from being penalized if they offer homestead exemptions to their residents.

Finally, the lower chamber’s version includes a provision that lets taxing units bank unused revenue growth for five years, allowing them to surpass the 3.5% trigger in some of them.

Currently, cities, counties and other taxing units can raise 8% more property tax revenue before their voters can petition for an election to roll back the increase. SB 2 would make those elections automatic and put in place a battery of reforms designed to increase transparency and utility for taxpayers.

State leaders had said property tax reform is necessary to protect Texans whose property tax bills are growing faster than their incomes. Gov. Greg Abbott has said on Twitter that “skyrocketing property taxes must be fixed” and that a previous increase to the homestead exemption was quickly “eroded by rising appraisals and rates.

But Democrats and ultraconservative lawmakers have clamored for weeks over how much control the state should exercise over local property tax revenue growth and whether the bill should include school districts.

Schools levy the bulk of property taxes across Texas, and hard-right lawmakers and activists have argued property owners will feel no relief if schools are exempted from the bill.

Efforts to exclude public safety expenses, economic development expenditures and spending on flood risk mitigation from the revenue growth calculation all failed to progress Tuesday.

City and county officials have also maintained the bill imposes an election trigger that is not practicable.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said that “a 3.5% revenue cap would create unintended consequences” and would “hamstring cities” without providing meaningful tax relief to residents.

Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston, which already operates under a revenue cap, also said the proposal would have little impact on taxpayers’ bills.

“Last year, revenue caps saved the average Houston homeowner less than $10 a month,” he said, “and resulted in 1,152 fewer police on the street.”

School bill

Many details of the Senate school finance bill still need to be ironed out, too, and committee members voted Wednesday without an official analysis of how their districts would fare financially.

Many committee members expressed disappointment at having to take a vote without being prepared. Their offices received the newest version of the bill just after 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Senate Education Committee members voted out a version of the school finance legislation that differs in many ways from the version the House voted out in early April. It includes a $5,000 across-the-board raise for full-time classroom teachers and librarians, funding for districts that want to pay higher-rated teachers more, money for districts with better student academic outcomes, and a few different long-term property tax relief proposals.

The House’s version of the bill requires districts to use a portion of their additional base funding per student on raises for all school employees and designates extra money for raises to be given at districts’ discretion. It lowers school tax rates by 4 cents per $100 valuation — $100 off a tax bill for the owner of a $250,000 home — and lowers rates further for districts taxing higher. But it doesn’t include a proposal for long-term, ongoing tax relief.

House members made it clear Tuesday they were happy with the property tax bill being yoked to school finance. An attempt to pry them apart during the hours-long floor debate failed by a large margin, with only five lawmakers on record supporting it.

In the meantime, another time crunch looms. State Sen. Larry Taylor, the Senate Education Committee’s chair, has indicated the Senate’s long-term school property tax relief proposals will only be viable if lawmakers also find a sufficient revenue source to make up for lost local tax revenue. Currently, there’s a blank space where the revenue source should be in the bill.

State leaders, including Patrick, Abbott and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, have backed a proposal to increase the sales tax one percentage point and use that revenue for tax relief.

Legislation that would do that, House Joint Resolution 3, was presented in the House Ways and Means Committee last month but has not yet been voted out. It would give Texans the chance to approve the sales tax swap.