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.

The one bitter clash Salinas had with the district attorney's office, the one lawyer Jones claims left Holmes looking to get even with the judge, came in 1989 when Salinas issued an injunction forbidding an assistant district attorney from taking a case to a grand jury before an examining trial had been held. Salinas argued that by bypassing the examining phase, a legal forum for weighing evidence and hearing witnesses in open court, the prosecution effectively short-circuited the rights of the accused, a drug suspect being defended by Jones.

"My thought at the time was that in certain cases the right to an examining trial as set forth in the Code of

Criminal Procedures should be protected," says Salinas. "I realize it couldn't be done in every case, because in an urban county like Harris County it would pretty well flood and obstruct the whole system. But nevertheless the realization was there that in certain situations there was a need to have a judge review and hear witnesses under oath. That would allow that certain cases not even get to the point of indictments."

Holmes didn't appreciate that argument. "I was really P.O.'ed when the judge in effect shot us the finger with respect to that," the district attorney recalled this summer when Salinas' legal problems were beginning to surface. "He was going to hold an assistant in contempt for violating his order not to take this case to a grand jury, just because of the relationship he had with the defense attorney."

Salinas won in a lower appellate court on the challenge, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found on behalf of Holmes.

Salinas says the D.A. ought to be pleased, since the outcome of the case allows the state to "run your client through a grand jury and get them indicted if they want to. Judges now are advised that under the law an injunction would be inappropriate."

Holmes says there's no lingering bitterness at Salinas over the challenge. But his view of the judge's fitness for office has changed considerably over the course of his investigation of the jurist.

"I had received a bunch of calls from the present [Clinton] administration with regards to the qualifications of Judge Salinas," he says. "I said he was an honest guy and I knew nothing that would prevent or embarrass the administration by his appointment. When this thing came up I had to call some people and say, 'Hold off, I don't want anybody embarrassed. Wait till we get through this.'"

Wear Your Seat Belt!
The district attorney has two other perjury cases pending against politicians: County Commissioner Jerry Eversole and outgoing County Judge Jon Lindsay, both Republicans.

Compared to those cases, the charges against Salinas are penny-ante. Eversole is accused of misreporting thousands of dollars in campaign funds used to purchase golf clothing and personal gifts. Lindsay invested nearly a quarter of a million dollars in his son's purchase of a diving boat, which he did not report on his campaign finance documents. A district judge and an appellate panel threw out the Eversole indictments, and Holmes is appealing the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Neither Holmes nor Stricklin is impressed with the common argument by all three officials that the campaign laws are confusing and that mistakes on reports do not equal criminal offenses.

"I've heard this until I'm well over my head with, 'It's so difficult, it's so difficult,'" snaps Stricklin, noting that campaign finance law requires only that a candidate report "what you got, who you got it from and what you did with it. That's all that's asked. Tell me what's difficult about that?"

But how many Harris County judges, if their campaign reports were subjected to same kind of scrutiny given Salinas', would be guilty of crimes that he has been accused of committing, or worse?

"Nobody's told us about it," retorts Stricklin. "Nobody's presented us anything that would support that allegation. Let's hear it."

And Holmes and his top assistant are equally dismissive of the argument that just maybe, compared to, say,

Eversole's alleged transgressions, the allegations against Salinas were hardly worth pursuing.

What if, Holmes asks rhetorically, he considered the case "ratshit, nitpicking" and did nothing, and "bang, Salinas is appointed to the federal bench. And guess what? Some hardworking reporter talks to Lilly and [she says], 'I've been to the D.A., and you know what they said? This is nipshit, no pizzazz, and they wouldn't even look at it.' And here it is, and the FBI comes back in and looks at it. Now we have these goddamn Senate hearings over his conduct with respect to the state election law. I'd rather be in the position you're accusing me of now than that other position."

So has Salinas been hung by a disgruntled employee who is now trying to protect herself and using the D.A. to do it? One who, after all, handled his court appointments and campaign finance records.

"Doesn't that speak volumes of him as a judge if that's true?" Stricklin says of Warden's duties for the judge. "Doesn't that tell you more than any story you're going to write about the individual?"

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