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Reversal on Appeal of Texas Trade Secret Ruling Offers Promise for Economic Recovery

By George LandrithSoutheast Texas Record

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The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on Americans’ health as well as the health of our economy over the past several months. The real estate industry is certainly no exception. Due to challenges and unpredictability ahead, combined with record unemployment and cost-cutting layoffs, many Americans have put their plans to purchase a home on hold.

At the pandemic’s onset, new home sale listings dropped by as much as 70 percent in some markets but the April numbers suggested some recovery was underway. Web traffic to real estate portals like Zillow plunged by almost 40 percent. Further, nearly 4 million homeowners are in the midst of forbearance plans – delaying payments on their mortgages – making up almost 8 percent of all mortgages.

While challenges presented by the coronavirus introduce uncertainty, a competitive real estate market and an environment that rewards fair competition and promotes collaboration within the industry will help foster a faster recovery.

Today, key industry partnerships and collaborations between mortgage service providers or banks, fintech and realtech developers offer products and services that bridge the gap between the huge swaths of available data and informed consumer decision-making. These innovations empower home buyers or sellers to make more informed decisions, at a time when few can afford to spend more or sell for less than they should based on constantly fluctuating home markets. A prime example is  how Amrock, one of the nation’s leading title insurance, property valuations, and settlement services providers, has focused on developing innovative solutions, such as their eClosing platform, to improve the real estate experience for all parties involved. Because of the rapidly evolving and highly dynamic nature of the industry, partnerships have become key to finding innovative ways to use data to provide the best product for consumers.

Regrettably, such ingenuity and the necessary B2B collaboration faces challenges that predate the current pandemic raddled housing markets. The real estate industry and those who rely on it all pay the price for the increasing onslaught of litigation abuses by the hands of legal profiteers seeking to exploit our courts and our industries for financial gain. 

Fortunately, on June 3, the Texas 4th Court of Appeals issued a decision offering hope that the trend of increasing abusive litigation, particularly that within the real estate industry, may not be so inevitable. 

This ruling marks a milestone for homeowners who pay title insurance, which protects both real estate owners and lenders against loss or damage occurring from liens (mortgage loans, home equity lines of credit, easements), encumbrances, or defects in the title or actual ownership of a property. Critically, title insurance offers buyers and sellers the assurance they need to buy, sell, and reinvest, all critical components of a recovery. 

The Texas 4th Court of Appeals follows a March 2018 decision by a Bexar County, TX, jury who awarded HouseCanary, a software developer, nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars after mistakenly believing Amrock allegedly stole their trade secrets. In truth, Amrock had hired HouseCanary on a $5 million contract to develop an automated valuation model (AVM) mobile application for use by appraisers in the field – a key development in streamlining the real estate buying/selling process. AVMs are formulas that are used to appraise real estate property based on key variables like historical price data, tax assessments, sales history and past lending transactions. However, after HouseCanary had failed to deliver a functional application after more than a year and no clear progress, Amrock sued for breach of contract, and built their own AVM for appraiser use.

The facts of that case – and the weakening standard of what makes up a trade secret – painted a distressing picture for the future of American innovation.

In an effort to cover their inability to develop the application they were hired to produce, HouseCanary countersued – alleging Amrock had stolen their trade secrets and used proprietary information in the development of their own AVM. After ignoring key facts and employing several faulty legal arguments and highly questionable calculations, HouseCanary was able to convince the jury that Amrock had misappropriated their trade secrets – and that such information was valued at $235 million dollars – more than 100 times HouseCanary’s total revenues for all product sales during the period in question.

Beside the fact that the ruling was 150 times the value of the initial $5 million contract, there is another piece of fundamental misinformation the entire ruling hinges on: HouseCanary had no trade secrets or any proprietary information – hence their inability to produce the mobile AVM application Amrock contracted them to create.

This was confirmed by four HouseCanary executives-turned-whistleblowers, who, alarmed by the massive damages figure, testified that “there was never a working version of the App,” and that HouseCanary had deceived Amrock by “representing that the App was more functional than it actually was.” In a then-anonymous email to Amrock CEO Jeff Eisenshtadt, former HouseCanary Director of Appraiser Experience Anthony Roveda wrote “housecanary never had any proprietary anything…” 

The original 2018 decision, as it stood before June 3, established a dangerous precedent for the future regarding what was classified as protectable “trade secrets,” which deterred innovation and the partnerships needed to provide the best product for consumers.

As the nation emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, the government – from policymakers to judges – have a duty to provide stability, create meaningful policy, uphold our justice system, and provide clarity where needed. The Texas appeals court decision to overturn Amrock v. HouseCanary sent a loud and clear message that this kind of frivolous litigation has no place in our courts – providing a reassuring and much-needed signal to innovators and developers that collaboration remains welcome here in the United States.


Intel Community Secretly Gutted Requirement Of First-Hand Whistleblower Knowledge

Federal records show that the intelligence community secretly revised the formal whistleblower complaint form in August 2019 to eliminate the requirement of direct, first-hand knowledge of wrongdoing.

By Sean DavisThe Federalist

Between May 2018 and August 2019, the intelligence community secretly eliminated a requirement that whistleblowers provide direct, first-hand knowledge of alleged wrongdoings. This raises questions about the intelligence community’s behavior regarding the August submission of a whistleblower complaint against President Donald Trump. The new complaint document no longer requires potential whistleblowers who wish to have their concerns expedited to Congress to have direct, first-hand knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing that they are reporting.

The brand new version of the whistleblower complaint form, which was not made public until after the transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and the complaint addressed to Congress were made public, eliminates the first-hand knowledge requirement and allows employees to file whistleblower complaints even if they have zero direct knowledge of underlying evidence and only “heard about [wrongdoing] from others.”

The internal properties of the newly revised “Disclosure of Urgent Concern” form, which the intelligence community inspector general (ICIG) requires to be submitted under the Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act (ICWPA), show that the document was uploaded on September 24, 2019, at 4:25 p.m., just days before the anti-Trump complaint was declassified and released to the public. The markings on the document state that it was revised in August 2019, but no specific date of revision is disclosed.

The complaint alleges that President Donald Trump broke the law during a phone call with the Ukrainian president. In his complaint, which was dated August 12, 2019, the complainant acknowledged he was “not a direct witness” to the wrongdoing he claims Trump committed.

A previous version of the whistleblower complaint document, which the ICIG and DNI until recently provided to potential whistleblowers, declared that any complaint must contain only first-hand knowledge of alleged wrongdoing and that complaints that provide only hearsay, rumor, or gossip would be rejected.

“The [Intelligence Community Inspector General] cannot transmit information via the ICPWA based on an employee’s second-hand knowledge of wrongdoing,” the previous form stated under the bolded heading “FIRST-HAND INFORMATION REQUIRED.” “This includes information received from another person, such as when an employee informs you that he/she witnessed some type of wrongdoing.”

“If you think that wrongdoing took place, but can provide nothing more than second-hand or unsubstantiated assertions, [the Intelligence Community Inspector General] will not be able to process the complaint or information for submission as an ICWPA,” the form concluded.

Markings on the previous version of the Disclosure of Urgent Concern form show that it was formally approved on May 24, 2018. Here is that original Disclosure of Urgent Concern form prior to the August 2019 revision:

Here is the revised Disclosure of Urgent Concern form following the August 2019 revision:

The Ukraine call complaint against Trump is riddled not with evidence directly witnessed by the complainant, but with repeated references to what anonymous officials allegedly told the complainant: “I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials,” “officials have informed me,” “officials with direct knowledge of the call informed me,” “the White House officials who told me this information,” “I was told by White House officials,” “the officials I spoke with,” “I was told that a State Department official,” “I learned from multiple U.S. officials,” “One White House official described this act,” “Based on multiple readouts of these meetings recounted to me,” “I also learned from multiple U.S. officials,” “The U.S. officials characterized this meeting,” “multiple U.S. officials told me,” “I learned from U.S. officials,” “I also learned from a U.S. official,” “several U.S. officials told me,” “I heard from multiple U.S. officials,” and “multiple U.S. officials told me.”

The repeated references to information the so-called whistleblower never witnessed clearly run afoul of the original ICIG requirements for “urgent concern” submissions. The change to the “urgent concern” submission form was first highlighted on Twitter by researcher Stephen McIntyre.

The complainant also cites publicly available news articles as proof of many of the allegations.

“I was not a direct witness to most of the events” characterized in the document, the complainant confessed on the first page of his August 12 letter, which was addressed to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the respective chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Hearsay is generally inadmissible as evidence in U.S. federal and state courts since it violates the constitutional requirement that the accused be given the opportunity to question his accusers.

The anti-Trump complaint also made several false claims that have been directly refuted and debunked. While the complaint alleged that Trump demanded that Ukraine physically return multiple servers potentially related to ongoing investigations of foreign interference in the 2016 elections, the transcript of the call between Trump and Zelensky shows that such a request was never made.

The complainant also falsely alleged that Trump told Zelensky that he should keep the current prosecutor general at the time, Yuriy Lutsenko, in his current position in the country. The transcript showed that exchange also did not happen.

Additionally, the complaint falsely alleged that T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, a U.S. State Department official, was a party to the phone call between Trump and Zelensky.

“I was told that a State Department official, Mr. T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, also listened in on the call,” the complaint alleged. Shortly after the complaint was released, CBS News reported that Brechbuhl was not on the phone call.

In a legal opinion that was released to the public along with the phone call transcript, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) determined that the complainant’s submission was statutorily deficient and therefore was not required to be submitted to Congress. The White House nonetheless declassified and released the document to Congress late Wednesday evening.

“The complaint does not arise in connection with the operation of any U.S. government intelligence activity, and the alleged misconduct does not involve any member of the intelligence community,” the September 3 OLC opinion noted. “Rather, the complaint arises out of a confidential diplomatic communication between the President and a foreign leader that the intelligence-community complainant received secondhand.”

“The question is whether such a complaint falls within the statutory definition of “urgent concern” that the law requires the DNI to forward to the intelligence committees,” the OLC opinion continued. “We conclude that it does not.”

It is not known precisely when the August 2019 revision to the whistleblower complaint form was approved, nor is it known which, if any, version of the Disclosure of Urgent Concern form the complainant completed prior to addressing his complaint to Congress.

Reached by phone on Friday afternoon, a Director of National Intelligence official refused to comment on any questions about the secret revision to the whistleblower form, including when it was revised to eliminate the requirement of first-hand knowledge and for what reason.


Executive Privilege or Cover-up?

by George Landrith

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which is part of the Department of Justice, ran the Fast and Furious “gun-walking” operation in which government agents purposely facilitated the sale of thousands of guns to the Mexican drug cartels. Hundreds of those Fast and Furious guns have been used in a long litany of drug-related murders along both sides of our southern border. On December 14, 2010, U.S. Border Patrol Agent, Brian Terry, was killed in a shootout in Arizona with drug cartel members who had guns provided by the ATF. Over 200 Mexicans have been murdered with Fast and Furious guns and to make matters worse, hundreds of Fast and Furious guns are still in the hands of Mexican drug cartel thugs. Continue reading


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