A trove of documents released this week by the Texas
Department of Public Safety seem to undermine its claims that protesters tried
to smuggle feces into the gallery of the Texas Senate during a historic abortion
debate July 12.
The documents contain officials' appeals for troopers with direct knowledge of the claims to come forward with proof of the claims, but none appears to have been successful.
The documents also appear to indicate that the state police agency conducted undercover and electronic surveillance of a pro-choice group but didn't keep similar tabs on the group's anti-abortion counterparts.
In addition, the documents appear to undermine a key rationale the agency has used for being unable to prove that its July 12 press release was truthful.
The agency did not immediately respond to questions about the 144 pages of documents it released Monday afternoon in response to questions and public-information requests from the El Paso Times and other news agencies.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who claims he saw "bags" of excrement at the Capitol on July 12, also did not respond to questions.
The controversy involves a Department of Public Safety news release issued late on the afternoon of July 12. It said the agency "received information individuals planned to use a variety of items or props to disrupt legislative proceedings at the Texas Capitol."
The atmosphere was tense that day because on June 25, an earlier special legislative session melted down amid a loud protest in the Senate chamber.
Dewhurst, a Republican who supported the abortion bill, had just made a controversial ruling than ended an 11-hour filibuster by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, that was intended to kill it.
After the debacle, Dewhurst vowed to keep control of the chamber when the issue came back July 12.
That day, as protesters chanted outside the Senate chamber, the DPS news release claimed that troopers had discovered one jar of urine and 18 jars of feces among people waiting to enter the Senate chamber. Even though they were suspected of plotting to hurl excrement onto public officials, the people were allowed into the Senate gallery so long as they discarded the jars, the news release said.
Some lawmakers and members of the news media immediately were skeptical.
Davis and state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said the claims were implausible and merited further investigation. Some critics said the news release was a ploy to make pro-choice activists look bad.
DPS Director Steven McCraw took umbrage at the questions.
"I am tired of reading that we made this stuff up," McCraw said in a July 14 email to his staff that was released Monday. "Let's get the photos we have to members of the media. Does anyone realistically believe we would fabricate evidence to support a political agenda? Amazing."
Evidence has been hard to come by.
Three hours after McCraw's request, DPS official Jose Ortiz replied that he had gathered only three photos. He explained that troopers weren't told to take pictures since the items were discarded and they were busy with hundreds of people lined up to get into the Senate gallery.
The photos include one of a small can of paint, three bricks found in the Capitol Extension and a fuzzy picture of a jar containing something dark that Ortiz wrote he was "still trying to get clarification on."
"I would recommend that we ... take our time to get as much information as possible on these and other photos of items the public tried to smuggle into the Senate gallery," Ortiz wrote.
More than a month later, when the Department of Public Safety released the information, the three photos remained the only pictures of confiscated items. None of the 144 pages of documents explained what was in the jar Ortiz was trying "to get clarification on."
The agency's spokespeople appeared to be casting about for information to support the news release just after it was issued.
At 7:36 p.m. July 12 -- a few hours after it was published and when reporters first started asking questions -- the DPS public information office apparently asked Trooper Robbie Barrera what had been found. A few bricks in the extension, he replied.
"That is all I have at this time," Barrera's email said.
Agency officials also struck out on July 15, as the Times and other news organizations submitted written requests that DPS back up its claims that it caught people trying to smuggle 19 jars of poop and pee into the Senate gallery three days earlier and let them go in anyway.
At 3:22 p.m., an official whose name was redacted sent a text to troopers -- "Were any of you aware of urine or feces taken during our shakedowns?"
At 3:23 p.m., a trooper replied, "Just what DPS put out in its email."
At 3:24 p.m., another wrote, "I never observed any."
Then at 6:16 p.m., a third trooper cast doubt on the news release's central claim.
"I was inside the Senate gallery and did not see or hear any of the above being taken," the message said.
The documents released Monday also seem to undermine the Department of Public Safety's explanation of why it doesn't have any evidence to back up the story told in its news release.
State police officials have maintained that they didn't gather any evidence or question anybody carrying excrement because it's not illegal to do so.
However, state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, a former prosecutor, has said the agency would have had a legal basis for at least questioning such people. Throwing excrement on public officials would constitute a state jail felony, he said.
The documents released Monday show that the agency planned to question people found with other items, which is legal.
"Anyone carrying paint or weapons such as the wrench we found needs to be taken to (room) 3E4 for an interview with Lt. Esquivel," said a message sent at 3:08 p.m. July 12 by Lt. Micki Scheffler.
No other documents indicate whether any such interviews took place or what they might have revealed.
DPS Director McCraw might bridle at accusations that his agency made false claims to make pro-choice activists look bad, but the documents released Monday indicate the agency focused most of its attention on political groups on one side of the abortion debate.
Rise Up Texas, a group formed to fight against "the conservative war on women," held a meeting on the East grounds of the Capitol on the evening of July 11 -- the day before the abortion bill was finally passed.
The state police were there, too.
Members of Rise Up "plan to return tomorrow around noon to block ingress into the Senate, flood the chambers and throw confetti," a 10:03 p.m. email from Scheffler to numerous DPS personnel said. "They were drawing plans for the first three floors of the Capitol and grounds.
"They intend to create (a) disturbance by blocking ingresses, being loud and forcing arrests. They adjourned around 9:30 p.m."
The message was accompanied by a photograph from directly over Rise Up members who were sketching out the Capitol. The top left corner was stamped "GO12-East Grounds PTZ."
The message from Scheffler closed by saying, "The intelligence was gathered by Agent Phillips, Sergeant Cruz, Corporal Champion, Corporal Lytle, B shift troopers, Supervisor Cannon and the monitor room."
The DPS did not respond when asked whether it had conducted undercover or electronic surveillance of the pro-choice group or why it had provided no evidence that any pro-life groups were similarly monitored.
Kandace Vallejo, a member of Rise Up, said the July 11 meeting drew a lot of "new faces," but uniformed troopers stayed well away during most of the meeting.
"It's really hard to say from my recollection, but the uniform officers were watching from such a distance that they would have to have had really good hearing to know what was said," Vallejo said.
The intelligence reported from the meeting also was wrong, Vallejo said.
Someone jokingly mentioned throwing confetti, but nobody discussed obstructing entrances to the Capitol or the Senate chamber, she said. A small group -- about four people -- said they would decide the following day whether they would engage in civil disobedience and purposely get arrested, Vallejo said.
She found it ominous that a state police agency would conduct surveillance on a political group.
"I think it is really scary that we are living in a political climate where our constitutional rights are something the police want to stop us from exercising," she said.
By the morning of July 12 -- the day of the Senate vote on the abortion bill -- the DPS seemed to be on full alert for pro-choice protesters.
Susan Fafrak, an analyst in the agency's Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, passed along a rumor.
"Per Lt. Esquivel, rumors are out there saying that the orange women will be taking off their clothes, urinating and defecating in the Senate gallery today," the 8:48 a.m. email update said. "I am searching for some sort of confirmation of this. I did hear the Lt. Gov. has said that he will not stand for any disruptions in the gallery and if there are, he will immediately clear it out. I will continue to monitor and keep you posted."
During the abortion fight, pro-choice supporters typically wore orange, pro-life supporters wore blue.
The documents released on Monday include social-media posts from pro-choice activists debating whether to go topless inside the Capitol and from anti-abortion activists repeating rumors that some members of the other side planned to "show their lady parts."
A Facebook post by an anti-abortion activist claiming inside information said Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League "are no longer encouraging their supporters to be civil and courteous."
But it's not clear from the documents where the idea that protestors wanted to fling feces came from.
In the documents released Monday, the first mention of smuggling excrement comes from DPS Deputy Director David Baker. As the Senate debated at 3:39 p.m. July 12, he sent an email to his boss, McCraw.
"With approval of Lt. Gov. and based on (State Preservation Board) rules, DPS began checking bags, etc., before allowing persons into the (Senate) gallery. This was based on our recommendation due to intelligence received," it said. "As a result, one jar of urine, 18 jars of feces and three bottles of paint were detected."
Within an hour, the news release went out.
Department of Public Safety officials still have not said who ordered that it be written, who wrote it, or who authorized its release.
Marty Schladen may be reached at 512-479-6606.
(c)2013 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)
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