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House panel votes Barr in contempt, escalating Trump dispute

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress, escalating the Democrats’ extraordinary legal battle with the Trump administration over access to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia report.

The vote capped a day of ever-deepening dispute between congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump, who for the first time invoked the principle of executive privilege, claiming the right to block lawmakers from the full report on Mueller’s probe of Russian interference to help Trump in the 2016 election.

Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York declared the action by Trump’s Justice Department a clear new sign of the president’s “blanket defiance” of Congress’ constitutional rights to conduct oversight.

“We did not relish doing this, but we have no choice,” Nadler said after the vote.

The White House’s blockade, he said, “is an attack on the ability of the American people to know what the executive branch is doing.” He said, “This cannot be.”

But Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said it was disappointing that members of Congress “have chosen to engage in such inappropriate political theatrics.”

Barr made “extraordinary efforts” to provide Congress and the public with information about Mueller’s work, she said.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said neither the White House nor Barr “will comply with Chairman Nadler’s unlawful and reckless demands.”

Though the White House initially hesitated on invoking privilege, Trump told his staff and political advisers in recent weeks to refuse to cooperate with Democrats, believing the party’s goal was simply to damage him politically going into his re-election campaign. The coming legal battle could stretch to 2020, and the White House is aiming to tie up congressional probes until Election Day.

Executive privilege is the president’s power to keep information from the courts, Congress and the public to protect the confidentiality of the Oval Office decision-making process.

The president’s decision was weeks in the making, the next inevitable escalation between the White House and Congress over a number of probes. The White House has rejected all efforts to probe Trump’s business dealings or tax returns as well as the West Wing’s security clearance procedure.

The committee voted along party lines, 24-16, to recommend the full House hold Barr in contempt, but only after some five hours of heated and, at times, emotional testimony.

Democrats made their case that Congress was at a historic juncture as it confronts what they consider Trump’s stonewalling of lawmakers’ ability to conduct oversight of the administration. Republicans portrayed the majority as angry and lashing out at Barr after the special counsel did not find that Trump colluded with Russia to swing the 2016 election.

Said Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas: “The president now seeks to take a wrecking ball to the Constitution of the United States.”

And Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana said the road ahead may be “messy” but Democrats must fight to “protect our democracy.” Other Democrats called the standoff a “serious” and “grave” moment.

However, the panel’s top Republican, Doug Collins of Georgia, said Democrats were manufacturing a crisis and rushing the process to “sully Bill Barr’s good name.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, a Trump ally, said the Democrats were trying to “delegitimize” the president and biding time before they try to impeach him.

“Get over it,” Gaetz said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said the next step will be consideration by the full House. Nadler said that will happen soon.

If approved by the House, where the Democrats hold a solid majority, the contempt resolution would almost certainly move to an unusual, and potentially protracted, multi-pronged court battle with the Trump administration.

The contempt finding could be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a Justice Department official who would be likely to defend rather than oppose Barr. Democratic House leaders could also file a lawsuit, though the case could take months or even years to resolve. Some committee members have suggested they also could fine Barr as he withholds information.

Nadler said Wednesday the Trump administration’s refusal to provide the special counsel’s full Russia report to Congress presents a “constitutional crisis.”

In a letter Wednesday to Trump, Barr explained that the special counsel’s files contain millions of pages of classified and unclassified information. He said it was the committee’s “abrupt resort to a contempt vote” that “has not allowed sufficient time for you to consider fully whether to make a conclusive assertion of executive privilege.”

Barr told Trump he should assert privilege now, “pending a full decision on the matter.”

Talks with the Justice Department broke down over the committee’s subpoena for an unredacted version of the report.

Barr released a redacted version of Mueller’s 400-plus-page report to the public last month, but Democrats subpoenaed the full document, along with underlying evidence.

The department has rejected that demand, while allowing a few top lawmakers from the House and Senate to view a version with fewer redactions. That version blacks out grand jury information, which needs a judge’s approval for release, and it doesn’t include the report’s underlying evidence. Democrats have said they won’t view that version until they get broader access.

Almost half the report’s pages contain some type of redaction including those around the Russian influence campaign, presidential pardons and other topics.

Barr has refused to testify in public to the committee after a disagreement over the Democrats’ demand that he answer questions from a staff attorney in addition to lawmakers. The committee is in talks for Mueller himself to appear May 15, but there is no agreement yet, and Trump has said Mueller should not testify.

Nadler also has threatened to hold former White House Counsel Don McGahn in contempt of Congress if he doesn’t testify before the committee later this month. Nadler rejected a White House claim that documents McGahn refused to provide despite a subpoena are controlled by the White House and thus McGahn has no legal right to them.

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Demolition of I-35 pedestrian bridge to limit crossing options between Baylor, downtown
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

After 53 years bearing Baylor University students to and from campus and serving as a platform for protests, processions and prayers, the Eighth Street pedestrian bridge will soon be gone, leaving cyclists, walkers and disability advocates concerned about the next five years.

The bridge has stood since 1966, when that portion of Interstate 35 was completed, and connects Baylor with downtown Waco. Construction crews will soon start removing the ramp to the bridge on the southbound side, weather permitting. A road bridge at South 12th Street is slated to follow the pedestrian bridge later this month, further limiting the number of pedestrian walkways crossing the highway as work unfolds.

The project includes updates to underpasses at Fourth and Fifth streets, 11th and 12th streets, and University Parks Drive.

Crews will add widened lanes that will accommodate bicycle traffic extending along frontage roads, as well as sidewalks and crosswalks at each interstate crossing. The city has also allocated $2.1 million from the Tax Increment Financing Zone to pay for lighting at the underpasses.

The decision to do away with the Eighth Street pedestrian bridge as part of the ongoing interstate widening was finalized during planning in 2012. Americans with Disabilities Act regulations that did not exist when the bridge was built now render it obsolete, said Stan Swiatek, the Texas Department of Transportation’s Waco district engineer. By modern standards, the bridge is too steep and lacks proper clearance height.

“It’s pretty stringent,” Swiatek said. “There is a slope requirement. If you have an assisted walking device, a wheelchair, anything like that, there’s a slope you cannot exceed.”

Replacing or updating the bridge is not feasible either, he said. The bridge would have to be taller, wider, longer and include flat landings on the ramps that allow users to rest between sloped sections.

“To do it in a proper slope, the only thing to do is stretch it out,” Swiatek said. “When you start adding up the length of that ramp on both sides … It then becomes a cost-benefit thing.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file  

Supporters of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle line up along I-35 and the Eighth Street pedestrian bridge in 2013 as his funeral procession passes through Waco on its way to the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

The bridge over I-35 has served as a platform for protests, processions and prayers over the last 53 years, including this 2013 celebration of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle as his funeral procession passed through Waco.

Meg Wallace, founder of local disability advocacy group Amberley Collaborative, said she was initially concerned about what the pedestrian bridge’s removal would mean for wheelchair users. Her concern grew when she learned it was never ADA compliant to begin with.

“I was thinking all those people wouldn’t be able to cross, but you never really could,” Wallace said.

She said the current underpasses lack proper curb-cut ramps and are frequently gravelly, making them difficult for anyone on foot and even less suitable for wheelchairs. Plans for the new underpasses include ADA-compliant ramps.

“I know in the end it’s going to be better, but this is a really long project,” Wallace said. “At least the bridge was something, but now it’s a whole mile to go around. Let’s not wait four years to make sure people can get from one side to another.”

Baylor assistant professor Eric Martin rides his bike to work and uses the bridge almost daily. He said he prefers the pedestrian bridge to the roads crossing the interstate.

“Fifth is probably the best way for me. It’s better than 11th or 12th, but it’s not the best way to get to campus,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of traffic, and there’s been construction on it lately.”

Frustrating travel

He said the intersections have always been frustrating to navigate on a bike, and while the bike lanes are helpful, pedestrian traffic in the area has only increased with development on the west side of I-35.

“It does make the campus feel more cut off, and that’s always been an issue in Waco,” Martin said. “But we’ll make do while construction is going on.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Lauren Ford (left) and Emily Burden (right) cross the Eighth Street pedestrian bridge over Interstate 35, which will soon be closed and demolished as part of a project to widen the interstate.

Waco Walks founder Ashley Bean Thornton said she is well acquainted with the pedestrian bridge. During the 20 years when she worked for Baylor, she would walk across the bridge almost daily to get to meetings downtown, Thornton said. At that time, there were fewer restaurants and housing developments targeting students in the area across the highway from Baylor.

“All this is pretty new, so that bridge gets used a lot more,” Thornton said.

She still makes use of the Fifth Street underpass, though she said most people avoid it because it appears less safe. However, she said she avoids University Parks because of its lack of lighting. The Waco Walks group attended meetings with city of Waco and TxDOT officials to advocate for the extra decorative lighting planned for the new underpasses, along with public art and landscaping.

“Decisions about things like that, huge infrastructure like this, or even little infrastructure, like a sidewalk in front of a school, are years in the planning,” Thornton said. “So, if you care about infrastructure, then you have to constantly be advocating for it, because that’s how you find out when things are coming down the road.”

The pedestrian bridge has provided a convenient and highly visible spot for demonstrations over the years. Pro-Life Waco co-founder John Pisciotta said his group has been holding monthly demonstrations on the bridge since 2014.

He is always on the lookout for overpasses that might serve the group’s purpose, but the pedestrian bridge was uniquely suited to it, Pisciotta said. In 2015, they held a dawn-to-dusk demonstration with hundreds of participants.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

Pro-Life Waco co-founder John Pisciotta walks the Eighth Street pedestrian bridge during the group's "dawn to dusk" rally on the bridge in 2015. He said the group hopes to hold one last demonstration on the bridge before it is closed and demolished.

“We’re a local organization, and with an overpass bridge it gives you an opportunity to stay in Waco and speak to the state, speak to the country,” Pisciotta said. “We can just stay here, and the country comes to us on Interstate 35.”

Weather permitting, the group hopes to hold one last demonstration on the bridge Saturday.

Praying man

Another familiar figure, Virgil Bell, will soon be saying his goodbyes to the bridge. Bell can often be seen on top of the bridge praying in distinctive robes and wielding staffs, a ministry he has considered his full-time job for the last 11 years.

“Some people might not know exactly what I’m doing up there,” Bell said. “I’m praying for the entire city, praying for the world, because everybody needs it.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson, file  

Virgil Bell prays from the Eighth Street pedestrian bridge in this 2010 photo as a cyclist passes by.

Bell said he has had memorable experiences at the bridge. Students sometimes stop to chat with him or pray with him. People often ask him what he is doing. On one occasion, a woman called 911 to report him, unsure of what he was doing, but local law enforcement was able to put her at ease.

Bell said he has many overpasses and intersections where he will continue to pray, but he intends to pray on the Eighth Street pedestrian bridge as much as he can before its demolition.

“I’m going to get in as much as I can,” Bell said. “They’re going to remember, and God will still be there, blessing those people.”

Photo gallery: I-35 construction

Interstate 35 widening project through Waco: May 2019

Jerry Larson  

Kieran-Sistrunk Fine Art Gallery Waco artwork by Waco artists at “Equilibrium” show.

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Local for-profit jail gets remedial order from state after 3 failed inspections
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

Action by the state this month will require the Jack Harwell Detention Center in Waco to reduce its inmate population if it fails another inspection planned within 30 days.

The jail facility, owned by McLennan County and operated by the for-profit LaSalle Corrections, failed its last three inspections by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which happened in August, November and March. The jail standards commission responded by issuing a remedial order for the jail last week.

“Remedial orders are one of the last ditch efforts to try to get them into compliance before taking really harsh action,” commission Executive Director Brandon Wood said Wednesday. “We much prefer to see a county submit a corrective plan of action, work on it and then come into compliance.

“This right here, this goes into the territory that is considered serious.”

Compliance issues at the jail come as the county is considering ending its contract with LaSalle and taking over operation of the jail, which shares a kitchen facility with the county-run McLennan County Jail.

If the Harwell jail fails its next inspection, the remedial order will require it to reduce its population by 48 inmates. The facility has a capacity of 1,162 inmates. A reduction of 48 inmates would free one staff member to help adhere to minimum safety requirements, Wood said.

If violations were to continue, the jail standards commission could continue reducing the jail population in increments of 48 inmates and could eventually take legal action seeking an injunction against the facility, he said.

If Jack Harwell passes its next inspection and a reduction in inmate population is not warranted, the facility can still be listed as “at risk” and be subject to tougher compliance rules, Wood said.

The recent inspections have found Harwell failed to maintain the minimum ratio of 1 jailer to 48 inmates on each floor, failed to conduct visual checks of inmates at required intervals and failed to use proper identification procedures for inmates, among other issues.

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said he attended the jail standards commission meeting last week in Austin when officials authorized the remedial order. A LaSalle Corrections official spoke to commission members and requested another inspection to prove corrective actions have been implemented at Harwell, Felton said.

“Jack Harwell told the commission that they have a new system that will identify jailers that are doing their checking,” Felton said. “They have new technology to help make sure the staff is in compliance with bed check rules and those things.”

Warden Richard Alford did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story.

County officials stepped up deliberations on taking over operation of the Harwell jail last year after the county’s contract with LaSalle increased from about $6 million per year to about $8 million per year. McLennan County uses Harwell for overflow from McLennan County Jail. Harwell also houses federal inmates and inmates form other counties in the region.

The McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the McLennan County Jail, presented estimates to county commissioners in September showing the county could save $1 million per year by ending its contract with LaSalle and running Harwell itself.

The sheriff’s office also told commissioners in March that taking over Harwell would present an opportunity to make a new home base for the county’s slate of pre-release reintegration programs and services for inmates with mental health or substance abuse treatment needs. The programs are aimed at reducing recidivism, which in turn saves the county money, officials said.

Felton has previously said commissioners would need to make a decision by July on whether to take over the jail if they want to make the change in the upcoming budget year and comply with requirements for opting out of the contract with LaSalle.

Court hears oral arguments in Ukwuachu sexual assault appeal
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Sam Ukwuachu returned to a McLennan County courtroom Wednesday, hobbling on crutches while his attorney argued that the former Baylor University football player deserves a new trial.

Ukwuachu’s sexual assault case has been bouncing among courts for years, dating to his arrest after a Baylor homecoming party in 2013, to his conviction for sexual assault in 54th State District Court in 2015, to a 10th Court of Appeals conviction reversal in March 2017 to a reversal of that reversal by the Court of Criminal Appeals in June last year.

On Wednesday, Ukwuachu, who had ankle surgery after a basketball injury, was back before the three justices of Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals, who heard oral arguments in the six remaining points of appeal the Waco court did not consider before reversing the conviction two years ago.

Ukwuachu’s attorney, William Bratton III, argued that the court should reverse the conviction again because prosecutors abused the grand jury process to intimidate and threaten Ukwuachu’s roommate, an important defense witness.

He also alleged that prosecutors left a false impression with the jury about the roommate’s phone records and improperly questioned him about the records when 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson had excluded them from evidence.

“A litigant is entitled to at least one fair trial, and I don’t think we even came close in this instance,” Bratton told Chief Justice Tom Gray and justices Rex Davis and John Neill.

Wednesday was the second time the court has held oral arguments in Ukwuachu’s case, but Neill, who succeeded former Justice Al Scoggins, was not on the court then.

A 54th State District Court jury convicted Ukwauchu of sexual assault and granted his request for probation. The victim in the case, a freshman athlete at Baylor, testified that Ukwuachu raped her at The Groves apartments on South University Parks Drive after a Baylor homecoming party in November 2013.

Ukwuachu, from Pearland, transferred to Baylor from Boise State University. He said he had a consensual sexual encounter with the woman.

In his initial question to Bratton, Gray asked, “Counselor, would you agree with the general characterization that this is a case of he-said, she said?” Bratton said he agrees.

Assistant District Attorney Gabe Price rebutted each of Bratton’s contentions and told the justices that Ukwuachu’s conviction should be affirmed.

Court’s opinion

In the 10th Court opinion reversing the conviction, which was written by Gray, the court awarded Ukwuachu a new trial after ruling a series of text messages between the victim and her friend sent shortly before the incident were improperly excluded from evidence and that Johnson abused his discretion by doing so.

Johnson admitted a portion of the messages but not the entire series of messages that Ukwuachu argued would have supported his defense of consensual sex and would have offered evidence about his prior relationship with the woman.

The Court of Criminal appeals ruled the 10th court erred in holding that the text messages should have been admitted under a certain rule of evidence even though Ukwuachu’s trial attorney, Jonathan Sibley, did not offer the evidence under that specific rule.

Johnson did not abuse his discretion “and the court of appeals erred in holding otherwise,” the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in overturning the 10th Court.

Tactics questioned

Bratton renewed his claims that prosecutors abused the grand jury process in the way they subpoenaed Peni Tagive, Ukwuachu’s roommate, a month before Ukwuachu’s trial.

Bratton argued that prosecutors strong-armed Tagive and intimidated him by threatening him with perjury charges if he continued to assert that he was in his room during the incident while they believed that his cellphone records placed him in another part of the city.

Tagive ignored the grand jury subpoena at Ukwuachu’s suggestion, and prosecutors contended that Ukwuachu was tampering with a witness. Tagive was jailed for a weekend and wore an ankle monitor to a subsequent grand jury session, Gray recounted, questioning the tactics.

Tagive testified at trial he was in his room and would have been able to hear if the woman had screamed as loudly as she asserted.

Quoting case law, Bratton said, “prosecutors may strike hard blows but they are not at liberty to strike foul blows.”

Both Davis and Gray said they had “concerns” about that point of appeal.

Price countered that Ukwuachu has no standing to appeal how Tagive was treated and that errors in the case were not properly preserved for appeal by Ukwuachu’s trial attorney. He said Tagive’s testimony was thoroughly impeached by his statements to Baylor’s Title IX office, investigators and prosecutors.

The court took the case under advisement and invited attorneys on both sides to brief their arguments.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson, file  

Sam Ukwuachu appeal (copy) Ukwuachu