Hanging the Judge

Lupe Salinas made a lot of friends on his journey from a Rio Grande Valley childhood to becoming a dogged prosecutor and respected state district judge. Until he was tapped for a federal judgeship, he never knew how many enemies he had.

Some of the lawyers and Democrats who have rallied behind Salinas contend that the investigation and prosecution of the judge were designed solely to keep him off the federal bench. David Jones, for one, went so far as to mail a letter to the grand jurors who indicted Salinas, claiming that Holmes and his office were pursuing a vendetta against the judge for a ruling that Salinas made against prosecutors five years ago.

Salinas still clings to the hope the perjury charges against him will be dismissed and his recommendation to the Clinton administration can move forward. But Holmes and his top assistant, Don Stricklin, who is in charge of the prosecution of the judge, claim Salinas' federal career became history with Jack Brooks' defeat at the polls on November 8.

"As it turns out it wouldn't have mattered, anyway," says Stricklin. "Who's going to carry the torch for [Salinas]? He's dead in the water."

Holmes likewise pronounces Salinas' prospects for becoming a federal judge "about like a snowball in hell."

The district attorney says that if he were "improperly motivated and doing as suggested by David Jones and others," he would dismiss the charges against Salinas "because if we were motivated by his judicial appointment, that motivation is no longer there, in my opinion." And the state, say Holmes, isn't moving to dismiss.

But Holmes and Stricklin may be a bit hasty in their obituaries. Brooks' recommendation of Salinas is still before the Clinton administration, pending the resolution of the charges against the judge, and the power to make federal judicial appointments still rests with the administration, despite the incoming GOP majority in Congress. Moreover, Brooks' duties in recommending judicial nominees in Texas will be assumed next month by U.S. Rep. Henry Gonzalez of San Antonio. Gonzalez is a highly partisan Democrat who may be strongly disposed to defending a fellow Democrat, especially one who in January will be the only remaining minority state district judge of the 59 in Harris County. The other Hispanic and black jurists were swept off the bench by same Republican tide that carried Brooks away in the November 8 election.

Salinas survives, but his judicial future is on life support.

The Charges
Despite the protestations by Holmes and Stricklin that they aren't motivated by vengeance or politics, the district attorney's office has been unusually persistent in pursuing Salinas, conducting three different ethics probes of him before taking accusations against the judge before one grand jury, then another.

One of the D.A.'s first areas of scrutiny was the contribution from Cruz Cervantes, although it ultimately did not figure in either of the indictments returned against Salinas. Warden told Holmes' office that the judge had taken the $1,000 in cash and deposited it in his campaign account in July 1993, in violation of the state law limiting cash contributions to $100 per individual. (There are no limits for contributions made by personal checks.) In a later campaign filing, the money from Cervantes was broken down and attributed to people who had not in fact made contributions, including close friends of Warden.

Salinas maintains he was unaware of the $1,000 contribution and trusted Warden when she worked up a campaign spending report with the erroneous names and contributions. The judge was able to prove that he was driving to San

Antonio for a conference the morning the cash was deposited.
Another line of inquiry that also did not result in charges against the judge grew out of his relationship with lawyer Carlos "C.C." Correa, a friend of two decades' standing. Last summer the D.A. investigated whether Salinas accepted favors from Correa while assigning the lawyer to cases in his court. The alleged favor was the free use of a vehicle that Correa had loaned Salinas for several months. Salinas, meanwhile, named Correa to the defense team for a case in the judge's court, effectively delaying a State Bar of Texas lawsuit against the lawyer for allegedly defrauding a client.

The delay postponed the trial of the lawsuit until after Correa had beaten an ex-prosecutor for a Democratic nomination to another state court judgeship (he lost in the general election to an assistant district attorney), but it turned out the maneuver was unnecessary, since a jury found Correa not guilty of the fraud charge. Salinas says he was misled by Correa, who falsely told him the chief defense attorney on the case in Salinas' court had requested that Correa be added to the defense team.

In one of the two indictments of Salinas that were returned by a grand jury last month, the judge is accused of failing to report the transfer of $800 from his campaign account for personal use. Salinas and his lawyer, George Parnham, say the money was to have been used to pay for an additional life insurance policy to protect the judge's family after he had received a death threat in a drug case he had recused himself from hearing. According to Parnham, Salinas was not able to get the paperwork to justify the expenditure and the money was eventually returned to the campaign account. Prosecutor Stricklin agrees that the money was replaced, but argues it makes no difference under the law.

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