Crime Stoppers Houston has a message for anyone listening: so-called “activist” judges are a threat to public safety.
Though the nonprofit crime-reporting tipline has traditionally been non-partisan, the organization has been criticizing a handful of elected Democratic judges in Harris County. An investigation from the New York Times and the Marshall Project found that Crime Stoppers’ shift in messaging aligns with its financial interests – including millions of dollars in grant funding from Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.
Keri Blakinger of the Marshall Project, who co-reported the story with the Times’ David Fahrenthold, noted that Abbott’s 2017 funding for Crime Stoppers previously had not been made public. Instead of receiving money from the Legislature, the organization received a $4 million grant from the governor.
“The following year he recommended that they expand their school safety program, which led to getting another 2 million from the TEA,” Blakinger said. “And in tandem with that, the group has also taken more political stances specifically on issues of bail, which has been an issue that the governor has had quite a bit of interest in over the years.”
Crime Stoppers ran into financial issues starting about a decade ago when building a new $10 million headquarters facility.
“It started with they bought some land with the donation from then-Sheriff [Adrian] Garcia, who gave them a few hundred thousand in asset forfeiture,” Blakinger said. “And then they had a capital campaign to still pay for the building, which ended up millions short at that point, according to the group’s financial statements. So in 2015, they borrowed around 5 million, and then in 2017, the year the first loan payments were due, Abbott awarded them that $4 million grant.”
On the relationship between the amount of money that Crime Stoppers has been getting from political conservatives and the recent focus to oust specific Democratic judges, Blakinger noted that “it’s hard to show causality, but we can say that, you know, as the group has turned more political, one of their focuses has been bail, and specifically in the context of the Democratic judges in Harris County, many of whom they’ve criticized for setting bail that is too low, which in fact, the data doesn’t show that that’s what’s happening.”
Chris Martin, a Democratic judge targeted by the organization’s messaging who is featured in Blakinger’s story, accused Crime Stoppers of making false statements for political gain. But some other judges had more troubling responses, she said.
“We spoke some to judges about when they’d been featured on a local Fox affiliate show that, you know, highlighted cases in which judges had set allegedly low bond,” Blakinger said. “But some of the judges also said that they’d been featured on national Fox shows, and a couple of them said that they’d gotten death threats afterwards.”
Crime Stoppers’ CEO declined to be interviewed for Blakinger’s story, and a statement from the group called it a hit piece for partisan purposes.
“They’ve had a lot of energetic responses to this,” Blakinger said. “I’ll say one thing that they actually repeated, some that I took to Twitter to clear up a little bit was about the source of that $4 million. They mentioned that the money had been funds approved by both the House and the Senate, which was an interesting statement because it was technically it did get approved by the Legislature, but then was line item vetoed and later given out as a grant. So it was a sort of an interesting point to focus on because it was in fact still given as a grant.”