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Perry's database of Texans concerns lawmakers

Houston Chronicle | April 16, 2007
POLLY ROSS HUGHES and R.G. RATCLIFFE

AUSTIN If you've had a traffic ticket recently, you likely are in the privately run database of criminals and potential terrorists being kept by Gov. Rick Perry's office.

The database is intended to centralize information for police agencies, but some state lawmakers are afraid it can be misused for political purposes if the governor's office controls it instead of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, who has introduced legislation to take the database away from the governor, called it "invasive."

"The public's apprehensive about a political office with the ability to access so much information ... about millions of people."

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The Texas Data Exchange database, TDEx, was developed after 9/11 and Perry established an Office of Homeland Security.

State law says it was to be overseen by the DPS, but it was quickly moved to the Office of Homeland Security at Perry's request, DPS Col. Thomas Davis testified Friday before the House State Affairs Committee.

Names of more than 1 million Texans are housed in the database, drawn from records of state, local and, soon, federal law enforcement agencies.

The database has information ranging from intelligence on potential terrorists to standard criminal convictions to drug investigations to speeding tickets and red-light violations.

"In an ideal world, what you want is a Google search for law enforcement data ... that is only used by law enforcement personnel," Steve McCraw, director of Perry's homeland security office, explained in an interview.

Raymond told McCraw he believes the database has too much information on too many people.

"I'd love to know if there's any legislators on that list," Raymond said.

McCraw testified the database contains 255 million searchable words and an individual's name could appear in it for a "crime" as minor as a traffic ticket.

Records in the database come from the DPS, the Texas Rangers and at least 62 local police departments, including Houston and Dallas, but not yet San Antonio, McCraw said.

TDEx is also poised for a major expansion by the end of May, when it also will start tapping into national records from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Prison Management, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, McCraw said.


Access to data questioned
Critics note that the governor's homeland security office is not a law enforcement agency and question its authority to access law enforcement data under federal law.

While McCraw agrees he's not a law enforcement officer, he insisted he has top security clearance from the U.S. Justice Department to oversee the database.

No one in Perry's office has ever tapped into the database to mine information for political purposes, McCraw insisted.

However, 7,000 individuals have access to TDEx, officials said, and one state trooper testing its security managed to successfully hack into it. McCraw said those security issues have been resolved.

"With the encryption right now, I think NSA (National Security Agency) would have a hard time infiltrating it," McCraw said.

"That's not what I've heard," said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston.

Controversy over TDEx erupted Friday after a story by The Texas Observer raised questions about whether the database could be misused by Perry or a future governor.

The article also questioned putting sensitive data on Texans in the hands of a private company that manages it.

The TDEx database is managed by Appriss Inc. of Louisville, Ky., and is an extension of its JusticeXchange program to provide state and local law enforcement agencies with a unified national crime database.

Since the early 1990s, Appriss also has been running a victims notification database to let crime victims know when the offender in their case is getting out of prison.

In Texas, this VINE program is run through Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office and is subscribed to by both Harris and Bexar counties.

Neither JusticeXchange nor VINE has created much controversy around the country. But The Paris News in North Texas reported in 2004 that the Lamar County commissioners rejected participation in VINE because all criminal arrests are entered into the system even if there is no conviction.


'Big Brother watching'
"We are all for supporting crime victims, but I am concerned with individual privacy," said County Judge Chuck Summerville. "It's more Big Brother watching over us."

Abbott, who has appeared in Appriss literature promoting VINE, has received $4,600 from the company's political committee since 2004.

The Appriss political committee also donated $1,000 in 2004 to the criminal defense fund of former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land.

A spokesman for Appriss could not be reached for comment.

The criminal justice database issues arose during a hearing concerning a border security bill by State Affairs Committee Chairman David Swinford, R-Dumas.

Swinford plans to rewrite the bill to overcome opposition from such groups as the Texas Catholic Conference, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union. Many of the objections involve requirements for local police and sheriff's departments to enforce federal immigration laws.


Securing the border
Swinford described opposition as "a clarity problem" that can be fixed.

"We don't want local officials enforcing immigration law," he told opponents of his bill.

State leaders want to beef up border security with as much as $100 million in new state funds that lawmakers will spend over the next two years.

"Everybody agrees that we need to secure the border," Swinford said.

Leslie Wetzel of The Woodlands told Swinford's committee that she speaks for "millions of angry Americans" who are outraged because the country and state cannot secure border areas.

"Secure the border now," she urged in a loud voice.

Austin Bureau reporter Gary Scharrar contributed to this report.

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