During Tuesday’s public meeting, Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) moved to strike language in a resolution from Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) on National Crime Victims’ Rights Week that repudiated negative coverage of Crime Stoppers in the New York Times and Houston Chronicle.
Praising the reporters who accused Crime Stoppers of partisanship, Ellis said, “I know it’s popular for people to talk about the big lie and try to discredit the media, but in my judgment, we shouldn’t shy away from fact-based journalism.”
Regarding a second resolution presented by Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) recognizing FOX 26 for an award-winning series produced in conjunction with Crime Stoppers, Ellis led the court in a 3 to 2 partisan vote to block the passage of the resolution and called for the county attorney and county auditor to investigate and audit the non-profit organization.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate when they dip into politics,” said Ellis of Crime Stoppers.
Ellis wants a detailed accounting of any county contributions to Crime Stoppers to determine the intended purpose of the funds, how they were used, and whether the organization is compliant with laws governing non-profit use of government funds.
Speaking to the commissioners, Crime Stoppers Deputy Nichole Christoph noted the organization was annually audited by the State of Texas and the private certified public accounting firm Blazek & Vetterling.
“Never has there ever been an issue,” said Christoph.
Ramsey questioned Ellis whether they would be auditing every nonprofit highlighted by the media.
The articles published last week criticized Crime Stoppers for the salary paid to Chief Operating Officer Rania Mankarious, for receiving a grant from the State of Texas, and for receiving “probationary fees” of $50 from defendants when ordered by judges in Harris County.
The Houston Chronicle also took aim at Mankarious for selling her new book “The Online World, What You Think You Know and What You Don’t,” which advises parents on keeping children safe online.
A third article published by the non-profit Marshall Project, a left-leaning news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system, joined the Times and Chronicle in accusing Crime Stoppers of wading into partisan politics since members of the group have been increasingly vocal about felony bond practices that may be detracting from public safety.
While criticizing Mankarious’ salary of $280,000, none of the articles reported the comparable $286,000 salary for Marshall Project president Carroll Bogert.
Following the publication of the negative articles, Crime Stoppers issued a response that begins by pointing out that last Thursday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX-18) held a press conference at the Crime Stoppers headquarters to highlight bipartisan legislation addressing crimes targeting women.
In her comments before the commissioners court Tuesday, Mankarious asserted that her organization had cooperated with the media investigation but that the reporters had excluded information that did not fit the characterization of the group as partisan.
Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) questioned Mankarious about Crime Stoppers not including his donations in a recent publication.
“When we sat with the Chronicle reporter, when we gave the New York Times answers, upon answers, upon answers, and I have it in writing and I have it recorded, multiple times the [Crime Stoppers headquarters] came up and every time I said ‘You know who the biggest gifter to that land was? The biggest gifter to that land was then-sheriff Adrian Garcia,” replied Mankarious.
Although the Houston Chronicle implied the state grant was from Gov. Greg Abbott, Crime Stoppers says the legislature approved funding that was recommended by state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston). The group also noted that District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat and former head of Crime Stoppers, has provided financial support, along with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, local police departments, and Harris County commissioners, among other partners.
In addition to providing rewards for information on various crimes under investigation in the region, Crime Stoppers also publishes crime prevention tips, and provides services to the victims of crime and their families.
In their response to the allegations of partisanship, the group quotes multiple elected and appointed officials of both major political parties who have pointed to pretrial release practices in Harris County as a factor in rising crime.
Although Ellis succeeded in amending Ramsey’s resolution on National Crime Victims’ Rights Week and in thwarting the passage of Cagle’s resolution, his proposal to order a county audit of Crime Stoppers had not been included in the agenda posted 72 hours in advance, preventing a vote on the request.
First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer told Ellis he could request an audit of the group independently.
Earlier during the meeting, both April Aguirre, the aunt of murdered nine-year-old Arlene Alvarez, and the widow of murdered sheriff’s deputy Sergeant Darrin Almendarez pled with commissioners to take more definitive action on the county’s crime problems.
Crime Stoppers Victims Advocate Andy Kahan recently noted there had been 171 people murdered in Harris County allegedly by suspects out on multiple bonds.
Commissioners also approved a no-bid contract to provide a private security detail for county Judge Lina Hidalgo at the cost of $40,000 per month on a 3 to 2 party-line vote. While commissioners Ramsey and Cagle explained they had no objection to providing security, their concerns involved the lack of transparency in selecting the vendor as well as the costs of using a private firm instead of a county law enforcement agency.
Update: The piece has been updated to better describe the Marshall Project with language from the organization’s website.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.