“This was a catastrophic system-wide failure,” Burgess told the commissioners court Tuesday.
The initial outage of Harris County’s computer network began on the evening of March 24 and interrupted not only jail and court operations but left the county’s 911 call center inoperable for at least 30 minutes.
Although portions of the system were restored quickly, Harris County Universal Services (HCUS) could not quickly restore the data systems used by law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts. After two days of system outage, a magistrate ordered the release of 280 suspects who had been held without the requisite probable cause or bond hearings.
Burgess told the commissioners court that high turnover at HCUS had led to a lack of institutional knowledge and understanding of how the county’s criminal justice system operated.
“This all could have been avoided had the knowledge been there and the proper backups in place,” said Burgess.
In 2020, in a 3 to 2 party-line vote, commissioners voted to fire the county’s chief information officer Bruce High. The commissioners court then appointed Gen. Rick Noriega, a former Democratic state representative, to serve as head of HCUS and chief information officer.
Noriega told commissioners on Tuesday that the problem occurred during routine maintenance of the computer networks. He noted that there had been meetings to discuss emergency management plans in 2018 and again in 2021. Noriega also told commissioners he needed to purchase additional diagnostic tools for the system.
“We cannot fix what we cannot see,” said Noriega.
Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) questioned Noriega further, noting that while much of the system had been restored, a database containing 40 years of court and criminal records had not been restored until Sunday, April 3.
Noriega explained that the database in question had not backed up and had to be manually restored, and that his staff had been working non-stop to recreate the database.
As of April 6, the district clerk’s website warned users that the county is still “experiencing issues with background checks and criminal activities…due to ongoing issues with Harris County Universal Services system failure.”
A seven-page letter sent to Noriega and copied to commissioners and county officials Monday, however, details personnel and communication problems within Noriega’s HCUS.
Signed by Burgess along with District Attorney Kim Ogg, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, District Courts Administrator Richard Woods, and County Courts Administrator Ed Wells, the letter describes conflict between HCUS and the county’s criminal justice departments over the management of court system data in which HCUS allegedly denied the district clerk and district attorney’s offices access to source code.
The letter also asserts that at a commissioners court budget hearing in January, Noriega threatened to shut off county department websites that HCUS did not manage.
“Well, Judge, I would tell you what, if you give me the authority, if you’re telling me I have that authority to require people to comply, or we’ll shut them off. I’ll do it,” Noriega said according to the letter.
“Threats of this nature, especially in such a public setting, may be good theater, but do not engender a spirit of cooperation, collaboration, or mutual trust and respect,” the letter said.
During discussion at the commissioners court, Wells noted that a “paper” backup system existed but that it takes time to initiate and throughout the outage HCUS officials continued to communicate that the system was either restored or would be shortly.
County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested that the entire criminal justice computer program, known as JWEB, might need to be replaced, but Burgess and others explained that it was a custom-designed system crafted by stakeholders over a 20-year period.
Eric Batton, executive director for the Harris County Deputies Organization, urged the county to find an immediate solution since he said the outage also created safety issues for staff managing excess inmates in the processing center.
Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) added that there should be a means for notifying law enforcement and victims when suspects are released.
After nearly two hours of discussion and testimony, commissioners instructed stakeholders and County Administrator David Berry to return in 30 days with a deeper analysis of the failure’s root causes along with proposed solutions to prevent any future incidents.
Ogg also sparred with Berry and Budget Director Daniel Ramos over funding for her department, resulting in a commissioners court vote to cover $7.5 million in personnel costs with federal COVID-19 relief funds. While all four commissioners voted for the measure, Hidalgo abstained from the vote after accusing the district attorney of “theatrics.”
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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.