Update: The charges against Sue Pilko and Steven Varnis were expunged.
A lifelong Kingwood neighborhood volunteer and her husband are facing criminal charges after they signed up for a Harris County volunteer program authorizing them to remove illegally placed signs, then were instead accused by police of stealing them.
Sue Pilko and Steven Varnis are certified “Bandit Rangers” through the Harris County Attorney's Office's “bandit sign program.” The non-partisan program trains citizens on how to spot “bandit signs,” including political or commercial signs placed in the public right-of-way, making them eyesores. Pilko and Varnis also were under the impression that the county's training program authorized them to remove signs placed on a business's property if the sign didn't pertain to the business — such as at a gun range in Humble, where they found campaign signs for Sheriff Ron Hickman, U.S. Congressman Ted Poe, Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman and Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan.
Now, however, all four public officials are pressing charges against the couple after being notified about the supposedly “stolen” signs. On top of feeling embarrassed, the 59-year-old and 67-year-old couple each had to pay $500 bail immediately so they wouldn't be arrested on a warrant and booked into jail, had to hire an attorney, had their reputations ruined by TV news stations that didn't bother to interview them and are now facing jail time and fines if convicted.
All for being mistaken about the rules for taking down signs after the county's whopping hour-long crash course.
“I've lived here over 40 years in Kingwood, and I have been so publicly humiliated,” Pilko said, holding back tears during an interview at her attorney's office. “I won't go to the supermarket. I don't go to the gym anymore. I'm not going to go to my book club. I have a small business and I'm worried my clients know too. Everyone in Kingwood probably knows, because of those horrible TV [news segments]."
The segments, on KTRK and KPRC, painted the couple as Democratic thieves wanting to steal Republican signs for political purposes — reports that Pilko's fellow neighborhood volunteers have already shared all over social media.
The couple was originally interested in volunteering with the county after feeling like their neighborhood, particularly the stretch along FM 1960, was growing cluttered during the primaries with sign after sign. After seeing a public notice about the county's Bandit Ranger training last month, Pilko and Varnis were actually the ones to reach out about a training session to the county's Bandit Ranger trainer, Bethany Dwyer, who told them she would come out to Kingwood for a presentation if the couple found ten more interested citizens to attend, which they did. A few weeks after they were certified, Pilko and Varnis took down the signs at issue in broad daylight — but promptly left with the signs in their car after a man who worked at the gun range came out and threatened to call the cops on them. After all, the county's training materials, obtained by the Houston Press, tell volunteers, “If a confrontation occurs, leave the area and retreat to a safe location.”
Soon, Humble police showed up at their doorstep, and the couple invited them inside and voluntarily told police they took not only these signs but several others along FM 1960. They explained that they were authorized by the county attorney's office to take any illegally placed signs, then happily showed the officers the signs in their garage.
Bandit Ranger trainer Bethany Dwyer told the cops Pilko and Varnis shouldn't have taken the signs at the gun range, and that “the program specifically does not address political signs to prevent any conflicts over First Amendment issues,” according to the criminal complaint. Dwyer's PowerPoint training program, however, clearly states, “Political campaign signs may be confiscated.” Still, for their error, a warrant went out for the couple's arrest.
Reached by phone, Sheriff Hickman said he wanted to press charges because he did not believe what Pilko and Varnis did was a mistake, but that their actions were "political in nature," since the signs belonged to Republicans. Hickman is actually well-versed in the bandit sign laws, having supported the statewide legislation in 2007 authorizing the sign removal, and says he does not see how anyone could have misconstrued the rules. Therefore, he said he doesn't have any sympathy for these volunteers.
If they're convicted, of course, there is a possibility that the couple would end up in his own jail, a jail that is so overpopulated that Hickman had to request an additional 200 plastic cots for inmates to sleep on, on the floor. Over the past two years, overpopulation has become such an issue that Hickman has advocated for diversion programs that would keep people who don't really belong behind bars from taking up precious space in the jail.
Except for Pilko and Varnis, apparently.
“To me it's disheartening, because these are good people," said the couple's attorney, Monique Sparks. "They've never been in trouble before. They're trying to be civic and active, and it's like the county sends them out there and they think they're doing a good thing with this bandit program — and they end up with criminal charges after a ten-slide PowerPoint. It's insufficient — I don't advise anybody to be a Bandit Ranger.”
Celena Vinson, an attorney with the county attorney's office, would not say whether or not her office would be taking responsibility for its own volunteers, given she did not want to “take sides.” "I don't know all the details. I don't know how much the signs cost, and I don't know what their intentions were," she said. "I think the signs were found — I'm looking at the news — at their house. So it's going to depend on how the case plays out and what information we learn."
Other county officials, including Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan and Constable Mark Herman, did not return a request for comment placed through their campaigns and offices, respectively.
“I'm disturbed by the political reality, where you can have a county authorizing citizens to do a public service, and they are hit with a criminal charge for doing it," said Varnis, who is a commercial real estate attorney. “To me, it's bizarre — we're like lambs to the slaughter. We did what they told us to do, and we're being prosecuted for it.”
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