Texas DPS Director Takes Blame for Citizen Data Sharing

The Department of Public Safety has taken harsh criticism from the governor for including thousands of U.S. citizens in a list of nearly 100,000 potential noncitizen voters to the secretary of state.

by James Barragán, The Dallas Morning News / March 13, 2019
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott Shutterstock/stock_photo_world

(TNS) — The director of the Department of Public Safety on Tuesday took responsibility for his agency's role in providing data for the Texas secretary of state's noncitizen voters investigation that included tens of thousands people who had already proved their citizenship to his department.

"We should have taken affirmative action on the front end to ensure that we had a senior-level person in position at the beginning of this project, which was a brand new project," Steve McCraw, the DPS director told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

McCraw explained that a senior staff member wasn't in place and that the project was unlike previous ones DPS had worked on with the secretary of state.

"If we had done that, there never would have been U.S. naturalized citizens known to DPS that was provided to the secretary of state that would have gone out to the election process and caused the problems that it's causing right now," he said.

"I take full responsibility as the leader of the Department of Public Safety, recognizing there's some complex issues with our data. We're the experts on our data. If we had a senior person in place, I'm confident that that would not have happened. I can assure you of that."

McCraw's statements — the first public comments he's made on the issue — come as Gov. Greg Abbott has ramped up criticism of the DPS' role in the production of data for the secretary of state's botched inquiry into the citizenship of tens of thousands of Texas voters. They also came on the same day it was revealed that one of his top deputies, who oversaw the production of the data for the secretary of state's investigation, would retire in August.

Skylor Hearn, who oversees law enforcement services at DPS, is one of director Steve McCraw’s three deputy directors and was promoted to a newly created position on that leadership team in October 2017.

In recent weeks, the department has taken harsh criticism from Abbott, who has blamed the department and McCraw personally for including thousands of U.S. citizens in a list of nearly 100,000 potential noncitizen voters the secretary of state sent to counties for investigation. In a second public scolding of DPS’ role in the citizenship review of Texas voters last week, Abbott singled out Hearn’s testimony to a Senate committee on the issue and called it “disturbing.”

But a department spokeswoman said Hearn’s upcoming departure is unrelated.

“Last year Deputy Director Hearn told DPS leadership about his intentions to retire at the end of this fiscal year,” said Katherine Cesinger, the department’s communications chief.

Hearn has not submitted a formal notice of his retirement to the agency but began telling McCraw and the other deputy directors last fall that he intended to retire at the end of the fiscal year, Cesinger said. Hearn verbally notified them as “a courtesy” so McCraw and his team could begin considering a succession plan. Hearn has also notified his direct reports of his plan.

Hearn’s departure would continue a shift at the top of the Department of Public Safety. Last year, two other deputy directors, Robert J. Bodisch Sr. and David Baker, announced their retirement, leaving Hearn as the only holdover in McCraw’s leadership team. Bodisch now serves as commander of the Texas State Guard.

Hearn has been with the department for 25 years and as deputy director for law enforcement services oversees nine divisions, including the second largest in the agency: driver's licenses, which he once headed. He has also headed the law enforcement support division, served as regional commander of El Paso in charge of 36 counties, and headed the Texas Ranger Company in McAllen.

In unusual tongue-lashings of the DPS, Abbott also said the agency treated the secretary of state’s request for data the same way it has handled the production of driver's licenses to Texans. The department’s responsibility for driver's licenses, which Hearn oversees, has been a sore spot for the agency for years, with many Texans waiting hours in line to receive their documentation.

“The way DPS has handled driver's licenses in the state of Texas is despicable, and it has been non-responsive," Abbott said last week. “And it seemed like they deployed that same non-responsive approach in dealing with the secretary of state on this [voting] issue. And that's unacceptable to me.”

On Tuesday, McCraw, who has borne the brunt of Abbott's criticism while the secretary of state's office has gone unscathed, absorbed much of the blame for the problems with the data and told the committee that interim Secretary of State David Whitley was not involved in much of the planning for the noncitizen investigation because he wasn't in office at the time. Whitley was appointed by Abbott in December, when the previous secretary of state resigned. Much of the planning for the citizenship inquiry played out between March and December of last year.

"So every overt action or every action that occurred ... the secretary wasn't in place at that point in time," he said.

On Monday, the secretary of state’s office suffered another setback in its citizenship inquiry when its technology vendor inadvertently sent counties more lists of people to investigate for citizenship. That issue was separate from how DPS initially provided the data to the secretary of state.

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said his office was conducting internal tests to compare the names of noncitizens who had come into DPS in January and February seeking identification documents to the state’s voter registration database. But the state’s vendors sent those internal tests to counties by mistake.

Taylor said his office sent emails to all counties to disregard those lists as soon as it noticed they were sent out and asked them not to investigate those cases. He said the issue was “immediately resolved” but could not say how many counties received additional lists in error on Monday. Counties sent no further letters seeking verification of citizenship, Taylor said, which a federal judge has banned without his permission.

©2019 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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