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Fifth complainant joins suit against DPS

A fifth person has joined a lawsuit by local law enforcement officers against the Texas Department of Public Safety alleging retaliation for reporting illegal activities by their supervisor.

An amended complaint was filed Friday in the federal Eastern District of Texas — Lufkin Division court that included new details about the alleged wrongdoing, as well as including Justin Sikes as a new complainant alongside the original complainants, Rodney Mahan, John H. Henley III, Joel Barton Jr. and John Riggins.

The suit alleges that DPS Sgt. Robert Shugart implemented illegal quota systems for state troopers under his command, that he offered prizes and rewards for meeting those criteria and that he doled out punishments — including denying promotions, changing duty stations and berating subordinates — if they didn’t.

The initial complaint was filed on May 26, and it names the Texas Department of Public Safety, the department’s director Steven C. McCray and Texas Public Safety Commission Chairman Steven P. Mach as defendants.

The amended document alleges Shugart implemented a quota system in Sikes’ area of patrol as early as 2016 when he “demanded that troopers under his command make a certain number of traffic stops or arrests” according to the complaint.

The additional complainant, Sikes, has been with the Department of Public Safety for five years, and was stationed in Center under Shugart.

“One day Shugart called Trooper Sikes into his office and told Trooper Sikes ‘You give me 15 stops a day and 15 drunks a year and I’ll stop (expletive) with you,’” the complaint alleges. “Trooper Sikes asked for that to be put in writing and Sgt. Shugart screamed ‘get out.’”

Sikes said he was also told not to patrol San Augustine County, where he was one of two troopers assigned to work, and to focus on enforcement in Center. The complaint alleges another trooper was also told to make a certain number of stops and arrests.

Shugart is accused of implementing the quota system in 2017 when he arrived in Nacogdoches, where he was reassigned that year.

In February 2018, Shugart and DPS Capt. Michelle McDaniel “held an awards ceremony and gave a gift card, tumbler and plaque to a trooper in the Nacogdoches office for the most criminal arrests in the area.”

In September 2018, Henley and Riggins reported the alleged quota and rewards systems to their captain and the Southeast Texas Region Division Commander. An investigator was assigned to look into the complaints in October 2018, after which Shugart allegedly confronted trooper Barton about the investigation.

When Barton attempted to apply for promotion to a position with the department’s hostage negotiation team, Shugart never responded and Barton was unable to apply, effectively denying Barton the promotion, according to the complaint.

Shugart was also accused of “following (the complainants) around in his unmarked DPS car.”

That investigation dismissed the troopers’ complaints as miscommunication.

Second DPS investigation

A second investigation began after Mahan, Barton, Henley and Riggins filed a complaint with the department’s chief resolution officer in February 2019. That investigation began in April 2019.

During that investigation, Sikes was initially contacted by the department about the complaint, and he was compelled to talk to the investigator.

“...Trooper Sikes told him ‘I don’t want to talk to you because I know that I’ll be retaliated against,” according to the lawsuit.

In April 2019, Shelby County District Attorney Stephen Shires asked the Texas Attorney General to investigate Shugart. The internal investigation was completed May 6 by DPS officials and found that Shugart “displayed a pattern of hostile, discourteous and unprofessional behavior” and violated department rules and regulations, and also found evidence of the rewards system that hadn’t been included in the first investigation, according to the complaint.

Shugart was suspended without pay for three days and permitted to remain in the local DPS office.

On May 7, the suit says, the four troopers received a memo saying that rather than removing Shugart, they would be allowed to transfer to other duty stations. If they chose to stay in Nacogdoches County, where they all live, “they would be forced to participate in one-on-one mediation with Shugart,” the suit says.

Barton applied for a transfer, which was later denied, according to the suit.

The Department of Public Safety has an ongoing investigation into Riggins now, which the lawsuit claims is part of retaliatory actions against him for speaking out. The suit also states “Henley has been banned from the Nacogdoches office and cannot go there even on official business.”

The suit calls for damages to be paid out for: past economic damages in the form of lost promotions and vacation time; future economic loses in the form of future lost earning and loss of earning capacity; and damages for emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life.

The suit also demands a jury trial.

The complainants are being represented by attorneys Tanner G.M. Franklin, of Etoile, and Sean Hightower, of Nacogdoches.

The Texas Department of Public Safety filed a motion in mid June asking a federal judge to dismiss the suit because the agency is immune from in such cases. The state’s motion cites the 11th Amendment, which prevents the agency from being sued for claims brought under the Texas Whistleblower Act.

“The Texas Department of Public Safety is not a person … therefore it retains its entitlement to immunity from liability for purposes of any claim for the alleged violation of a person’s constitutional rights,” a portion of the court filing by the Texas Attorney General’s Office reads.

The motion to dismiss does not address any allegations made by the state troopers. A formal response addressing concerns raised by the four men could come if U.S. Magistrate Judge Zack Hawthorn denies the motion filed by the state.

Volunteer pilots help in battle against COVID-19

There aren’t any big passenger jets roaring along the runways at the A.L. Mangham Regional Airport these days, but there has been a steady stream of pilots flying in and out with pretty important missions.

Since almost the beginning of the global pandemic, the volunteer pilots with the Texas Wing of the Civil Air Patrol have been taking to the air, ferrying lab samples from all over the state to the Austin-based lab where they’re tested for the novel coronavirus.

In Nacogdoches, five pilots have taken rotating shifts to climb in the squadron’s Cessna 172 — a single-engine plane that once could seat four people — and fly it loaded with samples from Nacogdoches to either Tyler or Sugar Land, then to Austin and back to the pineywoods.

The Cessna used to be a four-seat plane, but Civil Air Patrol Capt. Rick Block said the CAP, like the rest of the country, has had to adjust to a world in pandemic. The rear seats were pulled out of the plane to make room for the sealed Styrofoam coolers filled with test samples.

Block, along with the Civil Air Patrol’s Capt. Ryan Nelson, 1st Lt. Arlie Conner and squadron commander Capt. Lucinda McFarlin, have made the flights from Nacogdoches.

Typically, they’re given about half a day’s notice to arrange the flights, and they make about three flights a week. Usually, the pilot departs the A.L. Mangham Regional Airport around 5 p.m. and make the roughly 30 to 40- minute flight to Sugar Land or Tyler.

A state worker delivers and loads the samples into the plane, and the pilot takes off for the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, where another state worker collects the coolers.

Then, it’s back into the sky for a two-hour return flight to Nacogdoches.

“It’s such a long day they don’t want people doing it every day,” Block said. “It’s all volunteer.”

There’s a level of challenge to the flights that isn’t typical for air patrol pilots, though they train for it.

Each of the flights is made mostly at night, and the little Cessna 172 they fly is ushered into the Austin airport right alongside larger jets and airliners.

Block said one flight, the plane was loaded down with seven coolers filled with roughly 700 samples.

To date, McFarlin said the Texas Wing of the Civil Air Patrol has transported some 3,455 samples around the state.

Using the Civil Air Patrol to move the samples, as opposed to, say, driving them, means faster testing and keeping the samples viable. The Civil Air Patrol has also been tasked with helping at distribution centers with food and supplies, McFarlin said.

It’s unlikely the missions will end anytime soon, either, as the flights could continue indefinitely and are expected to last at least through the end of July, McFarlin said.

Block said the state pays for the fuel to keep them in the air.

Despite the challenges and short-turnaround times for the flights, Block said the patrol’s pilots are happy to keep playing a role in responding to the pandemic.

“We like to fly, so it’s good flying time we don’t have to pay for,” he said.

Texas shuts down bars as hospitalizations surpass 5,000

Congress stalls on policing overhaul, despite public outcry

A Republican-backed police reform bill hit a snag Wednesday as Senate Democrats voted against it, leaving the parties to decide whether to negotiate a compromise or walk away despite public outcry over the killings of Black Americans by law enforcement officers.

John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas said he was filled with “disappointment and frustration” over Democrats blocking the Justice Act. Cornyn authored several parts of the bill including a portion that called for the creation of a National Criminal Justice Committee, which had previously gained bipartisan support in the Senate.

“There was also a provision in there that Sen. (Cory) Booker and Sen. (Kamala) Harris were championing to make lynching a federal hate crime. To my great surprise they voted to block consideration of a bill that continues both of those bipartisan proposals,” Cornyn said.

The impasse threatens to turn the nationwide protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others into another moment that galvanizes the nation but leaves lawmakers unable to act. Common ground is not out of reach.

But the legislation is stalled, for now, with Democrats refusing to agree to open debate as they push for greater changes in police tactics and accountability.

“If you don’t think we’re right, make it better, don’t walk away,” implored Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican senator, and the author of the GOP bill.

Yet the outlook is deeply uncertain with Congress unable to swiftly respond even as the public demands policing changes. Much as lawmakers have failed to act during times of crisis on gun control or immigration changes there’s a familiar standoff despite broad support. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll shows almost all Americans support some degree of criminal justice changes.

“That’s what the police act was designed to start us off doing,” Cornyn said.

Ahead of the vote, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said, “My hope, my prayer, is that after this bill fails today... we can start on the path of bipartisanship.”

The GOP’s Justice Act is seen by Republicans and Democrats as a starting point in the broader debate over how best to change policing practices as demonstrations in cities large and small focus on law enforcement and racial injustice. It would create a national database of police use-of-force incidents, restrict police chokeholds and set up new training procedures and commissions to study race and law enforcement.

The package from Republicans is not as sweeping as a Democratic proposal, which mandates many of the changes and would hold police liable to damages in lawsuits. There are similarities on some issues, lawmakers say, but also vast differences.

Civil rights leaders and the Congressional Black Caucus urged a no vote on the GOP bill. Law enforcement and business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have urged both parties to find common ground.

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Trump tweeted his support for the GOP bill. He said it would be “great for both people of color and police.” Trump tweeted, “Hope to sign it into law ASAP!”

Vice President Mike Pence was set to huddle Wednesday with GOP senators at lunch.

The vote was 55-45, failing to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance. Two Democrats, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, along with Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, voted with Republicans to open the debate.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Democrats as engaging in “political nonsense.” Still, he vowed to try again, hoping to pass legislation before a July 4 holiday recess. McConnell switched his vote to no, a procedural move so he could swiftly bring it back for reconsideration.

During a GOP lunch Tuesday, Scott played for colleagues the racist voice mail messages he has recently received, according to a Republican granted anonymity to discuss the private meeting. Senators were shocked, and some suggested Scott needs security protection because some of the calls were threatening, said a Scott aide. The senator is considering options, his aide said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has indicated she is eager to enter talks with the Senate, a signal the door is not closed to compromise.

But in a CBS News Radio interview Tuesday, Pelosi said Republicans need to step up with a better bill. “They were trying to get away with murder, actually — the murder of George Floyd.”

The comment drew sharp rebuke and calls from Republicans for her to apologize.

“We’re ready to make a law, not just make a point,” McConnell said as he opened the Senate on Tuesday. He said Americans “deserve better than a partisan stalemate.”

Political risks of inaction are high, as the public wants to see policing changes after nearly a month of constant demonstrations nationwide, in cities large and small, forcing a worldwide reckoning over law enforcement and racial injustice.

Staff writer Josh Edwards and Associated Press writers Lisa Masscaro, Lauire Kellman and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.

Rec center closes as local cases climb

COVID-19 isn’t done with East Texas.

In addition to a statewide closing of bars per order of Gov. Greg Abbott, the City of Nacogdoches this week closed the C.L. Simon Recreation Center after learning a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus.

The Nacogdoches County Emergency Management Office on Friday confirmed 10 new cases of the virus.

“This is not the time for complacency,” Nacogdoches County Judge Greg Sowell said in a live media broadcast Friday afternoon. “We’re asking people to maintain social distancing and wear a mask in public in areas where you can’t social distance. It’s a personal responsibility — you owe it not only to yourself but others.”

The city’s C.L. Simon Recreation Center opened for limited hours and activities June 1 with cleaning after each session, mask and hand-washing requirements for staff and one-way entry and exits.

On Wednesday, however, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department learned a staff member had tested positive for the virus and immediately closed the facility.

“As a precautionary measure, all co-workers who have been in direct contact with this employee will be tested and self-quarantine pending the results,” a city statement read. “If you have visited the Recreation Center beginning June 15, you may have been exposed. Please watch for symptoms of the virus, including fever, cough and/or trouble breathing, and contact your primary care physician with further questions or to seek testing.”

The Judy McDonald Public Library has remained closed to the public with a pick-up service for library materials.

Of the 10 cases of the virus confirmed in Nacogdoches County Friday, six are related to long-term care facilities. The total cases in the county stood at 358 as of Friday, with 51 active cases.

Patients diagnosed from long-term care facilities included a woman in her 50s, a woman and a man both in their 60s, a woman in her 70s, a woman in her 90s and a woman over age 100.

Other cases announced Friday include two women in their 30s who live in the county, a woman in her 30s who lives in the city and a man in his 70s who is a city resident.

Seven cases were confirmed Thursday. One of them, a man in his 20s, was from a previously reported household. Others included a man and woman both in their 20s who live in the county, a woman in her 30s in the city, two men in their 40s who live the city and a man in his 50s, also a city resident. Three cases reported Wednesday included a man in his 20s and another in his 30s who live in the city, and a female county resident in her 30s.

For those experiencing symptoms or who feel they have been exposed to the virus, a local call center remains open from 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at 936-468-4787; appointments for tests are required for all testing sites within the county.