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.

Cynthia McMurrey's remark to Lupe Salinas seemed innocent enough that night last February, when McMurrey and a group of fellow lawyers, many of whom practiced in Salinas' court, gathered in her home to toast the judge on the announcement that he had been tapped for a position in the federal judiciary.

Salinas and his courthouse friends had much to celebrate. From a South Texas migrant farming family, Salinas had risen to become a respected state district court judge, one of the few Hispanics in Harris County to hold that position, and, earlier in his legal career, a dogged federal prosecutor who cracked one of Houston's most infamous cases of police malfeasance. His ascension to the bench of a U.S. district court -- a coveted lifetime sinecure that most lawyers only dream of obtaining -- would be a fitting cap to Salinas' up-from-nowhere, All-American success story.

It would also vault him clear of the fevered political climate at the Harris County Courthouse, where jealousy, spite and animosity can incubate for years or spread like a contagion overnight. In the more antiseptic atmosphere of Houston's federal courthouse, Salinas wouldn't have to run for election every four years, nor would he or his aides have to grub for contributions to fund those election campaigns.

It was, as the judge has said, his lifetime dream. His recommendation to the Clinton administration by the senior Democrat in Texas' congressional delegation, U.S. Representative Jack Brooks of Beaumont, was actually the second time he had been in line for a federal post. Brooks previously had forwarded Salinas' name for an opening on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the administration instead settled on another Hispanic jurist for that job.

McMurrey, a vivacious criminal defense lawyer who once caused a stir by bringing boyfriend Frank Sinatra Jr. to Salinas' courtroom, considered herself a good friend of both the judge and his court coordinator, Lilly Warden. But with one innocuous, offhand remark directed at two friends, McMurrey unwittingly opened the door on a courthouse feud that has left Salinas indicted on two misdemeanor perjury charges and has him accusing Warden of trying to sabotage his bid to become a federal judge.

According to guests at the dinner party, McMurrey hailed what she assumed was the impending trip to the federal judiciary by "our good friend Judge Salinas" and "his court coordinator, Lilly Warden."

"I was just speechless," recalls Salinas, who in fact had no intention of having Warden accompany him. The judge says that he had some minor problems with Warden's work for him, but mostly he wanted to hire someone from within the federal system to help him learn the ropes there.

Oddly, Salinas remembers McMurrey's statement as coming in the form of a toast in front of the gathering, while McMurrey says it was thrown out in casual conversation at the door as the well-lubricated guests prepared to depart.

"There must have been ten toasts, but I didn't say it then," explains McMurrey. "As we were walking out and there were quite a few people standing around, I said, 'You are taking Lilly to the federal court with you, aren't you?' And then there was one of those pregnant pauses that we've all had before."

McMurrey could be forgiven for making the assumption. Warden had been Salinas' court

coordinator since 1989 and had assisted the judge with his campaign fundraising and record-keeping. A onetime Republican turned Democrat who was popular with coworkers around the county courthouse, the 35-year-old Havana-born Warden began her association with the judge as a campaign volunteer three years before that.

"Lilly looked uncomfortable, embarrassed," says another person who was at the McMurrey gathering. "It was apparent from Salinas' reaction she wasn't included in his future plans."

It was all very awkward, particularly since Salinas was not only her employer but also the godfather to Warden's youngest son and her professor for a recent University of Houston political science class on civil rights, in which she received an "A." To have her rejection aired in such a public manner before close friends had to be doubly humiliating.

Soon enough, it would be Salinas' turn to taste a much more public form of humiliation.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Lilly Warden was an invaluable right hand to Lupe Salinas.
"She's a political asset in her own right," observes lawyer David Jones, a onetime University of Houston suitemate of Salinas' whose wife, Misty Jones, succeeded Warden as Salinas' court coordinator.

"She's personable. She knows the game and knows the players. And she enjoys it. There's not many people like that. She would go places and represent Lupe and give good political feedback and keep the assholes and alligators off his back."

Misty Jones says that several days after the McMurrey soiree Warden told her that she deserved to be included in Salinas' plans for his federal judgeship because of the political work she had done for him. Warden confided that those chores included talking a potential Republican challenger out of running against Salinas in 1992, Jones says.

Under the judge's admittedly loose supervision, Warden also administered court appointments of lawyers who represented indigent clients in Salinas' 351st District Court.

"She was throwing around the patronage," says one lawyer. "She could keep those people working if they left Salinas alone. She knew what she was doing in order to work that little game. And then all of a sudden, no federal court. Well, that's a very tough letdown, to be told that your political boss, whose ass you've covered and whose frogs you've kissed or turned into princes, if need be, for him, all of a sudden doesn't think you're worth the big lifetime appointment for him."

Warden is connected as closely to the Houston law enforcement community as a person can be short of wearing a badge or prosecuting a case. Her husband, Bill Warden, is a deputy to Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia. Her sister, Natalie Fleming, is an assistant district attorney under District Attorney Johnny Holmes. Her sister's husband works in the County Attorney's office.

As Salinas has learned, severing such a well-connected right hand can be hazardous to one's political health, particularly if one has sworn to erroneous campaign reports jointly prepared with that right hand in a county whose district attorney tends to investigate allegations of political misfeasance only when whistle blowers or inquiring journalists darken his door.

Warden left her job with Salinas' court in April, and within a month Holmes received a call from Ron Woods, the U.S. Attorney in Houston during the Bush administration who had turned to defense work after leaving the government. Woods explained that he represented a Lilly Warden, who had a number of things she wanted to tell the district attorney about Lupe Salinas -- if she were not prosecuted for her role in some of those matters.

In late May, Salinas says, he received a call from Warden, who told him the district attorney's office was investigating a $1,000 contribution to his campaign fund from lawyer Cruz Cervantes. "It started with her basically accusing or stating, 'You remember the thousand dollars you received in that envelope.' And of course, I immediately questioned her as to what she was saying," Salinas recalls. "It was only later in the conversation that I began to be concerned that she was trying to steer me into saying certain things. She said she was worried they were going to come talk to her. I don't know if that's true or not, but the bottom line is she was expressing those concerns. I advised her to, of course, tell the truth, but that what she was saying was not correct. And then heaven knows what she may have specifically stated to the district attorneys."

Holmes has little doubt about Warden's motivation.
"She knew she'd been dumped in the deep fat long before she came to us," he says. "She wasn't going to be a part of Judge Salinas' federal trip. I don't think she was spirited by outrage that the law had been violated.

"But that's never the case. When somebody brings us this stuff ... it's either an opponent, friend of the other side or the media, and they write a big story about what they have found. Their motive is not to prevent corrupt conduct, not outrage at the violation of the law, but," and here his voice drops to a mock whisper, "they get 'em a scoop!"

Holmes says he took Warden seriously because of Woods -- "a lawyer who had credibility with me" -- and in effect granted her immunity in return for information. "I suspect she felt like she was acting together as a party [with Salinas]. She felt she had some exposure, to go and talk to the lawyer about it before she came forward. The accusation could be made that she was just as guilty as Lupe. I don't find that surprising."

Warden declined to be interviewed for this story, but a source close to her portrays the court coordinator as a frightened ex-employee who was not seeking revenge on the judge but rather trying to protect herself. In the scenario the source sketches, Warden was initially contacted by a member of the district attorney's staff and told the FBI wanted to talk to her, and she misinterpreted that notification of a routine federal background check on Salinas as a warning she was under

investigation. Fearing she might be held responsible for Salinas' campaign reporting violations, Warden consulted with her sister the assistant district attorney and then retained Woods, who initiated contact with Holmes.

While Warden remains mum, her husband spoke to the Press on behalf of the court coordinator, who after leaving Salinas' court went to work at the same job for another judge.

"First, Lilly has no ill will toward Lupe and never has," says Bill Warden. "We've been hurt by the accusation that Lupe has made using Lilly as an excuse for his present problems. He has been adamant that her record-keeping has been the sole source of his problems that led to his perjury indictment. I don't feel it's fair and I hardly think that would be the scope of his defense at his trial."

Warden says his wife was well aware that she wouldn't be a part of Salinas' federal staff because the judge had previously told his state district court aides to begin looking for other jobs after he had been recommended by Brooks for an appointment to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. (Several other people who spoke with Warden discount her husband's explanation and say she was indeed angry at Salinas.)

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.

"You can't unring the bell," Stricklin says. "If you did it, you did, and there's no putting it back."

Adds Holmes: "Once you hijack the store, giving it back doesn't make it any less of a crime."

Still, the upshot is that Salinas personally profited not a penny by the alleged infraction.

In the second perjury charge, Salinas is accused of signing off on a campaign finance report showing that he was owed $400 on a tax overpayment on interest from a campaign account -- when in fact the figure was approximately $180. Salinas contends the misstatement, which resulted in the misuse of little more than $200, was nothing more than sloppy bookkeeping.

The grand jury also indicted attorney Arnold Govella on a misdemeanor charge for accepting an illegal $500 cash contribution on behalf of the Mexican American Bar Association from Salinas in 1992. Although Govella apparently did not keep the money for himself and turned it over to MABA, Holmes says that also is a clear violation of state law he is obliged to enforce. At least one grand juror disagreed. The indictment of Govella provoked a protest letter from Idalia Skates to Holmes on the lawyer's behalf. She argued that since neither Govella nor the donation were the object of the investigation, he should not have been indicted.

Salinas' lawyer recently raised a new line of argument by challenging the impartiality of the grand jury that indicted the judge. Parnham claims a block of jurors on the panel whose names were submitted by Doris Hubbard, an Acres Home political activist and grand jury commissioner, was hostile to Salinas from the start. In Texas, a district judge appoints grand jury commissioners, who then submit from 15 to 20 names of people they know to serve on a grand jury. The commissioners caucus and select the final 12 to be impaneled. Although Hubbard did not attend the meeting of commissioners, four names off her list were selected for the grand jury that indicted Salinas, including her daughter, Kqisha, and her friend and political associate Etta Crockett.

Hubbard, whose political organization's records were subpoenaed last year by a federal grand jury in an investigation of alleged fraudulent early voting that did not result in charges, denied that she had discussed Salinas' case with jurors while the indictments were deliberated or that she was prejudiced against Salinas. In fact, says Hubbard, she doesn't believe the case against Salinas should have been taken to the grand jury that she helped pick.

"One of the people that I did appoint told the foreman, 'You need to tell [the D.A.] to take this somewhere else,' 'cause they didn't really want to be involved with it. But they were kind of overruled on that and the case came anyway."

Hubbard doesn't mince words when expressing her displeasure at being dragged into the Salinas case. "I'm really pissed," she says, "with whoever's trying to fuck with me like this."

Stricklin says he's unaware of any problems with the composition of the grand jury Hubbard helped select.

The district attorney's office later sought felony perjury indictments against Salinas from a second grand jury for unspecified statements he made in his testimony to the first grand jury. The second panel refused to accept the district attorney's recommendation and no-billed Salinas. The setback did not please Holmes, who tersely labeled that grand jury "negligent."

Rose Salas, an administrative assistant to County Attorney Mike Driscoll, was a juror on the second panel. By law, she cannot discuss the grand jury's deliberations, but asked after the panel declined to indict Salinas whether she believes he is honest and qualified to sit on the federal judiciary, she answered:

"Yes I do. Knowing what I do know, yes
I do."

Rising Up, Throwing Down
"You're not going to let them get you for a lousy $400?," a mechanic at Itzy's on Hillcroft calls to the judge as Salinas drops his sedan off for a tune-up prior to a Thanksgiving trip to the Rio Grande Valley. Salinas has a free day because the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct has temporarily suspended him with pay pending a hearing this week on whether he can resume his duties in his court without prejudice to pending cases. It's a time to run errands, consult with his lawyer and plan a fundraiser that will be held this week for his legal defense.

Because of the TV and newspaper coverage of the indictments, Salinas, a short, stocky and somewhat shy man, finds himself a recognizable figure on the streets. Given the reason for his newfound celebrity, it's somewhat unsettling.

"Innumerable people who see me greet me, know they've seen me somewhere. And many of them may know more," he says.

"Obviously, the day the indictment came down, it was the most horrible experience to go down and get booked. The worst experience of my life. It was things that we obviously always expected for the criminal accused, [not us]."

The charges strike not only at Salinas' professional future but at his long string of accomplishments stretching from dirt-poor beginnings in South Texas.

His mother, Benita, was born in a small northern Mexican village. His father, Arnulfo, grew up in Robstown, Texas, after his parents migrated from Mexico in the 1920s. During the Depression the family temporarily retreated to the support of village life in Mexico when jobs vanished in Texas.

When times got better the family returned to Texas and fell into the agricultural migrant worker stream. Guadeloupe Salinas was born in McAllen in 1948. "My early recollection was picking cotton in Bryan, Texas, in 1955," laughs Salinas, picking at a plate of eggs and chorizo at a strip center tacqueria on Bellaire. "I went on strike. My oldest sister, Gloria, was in the same bracket with me. We were protesting work conditions. It was too hot and we'd spend most of the day under a huge truck that would load up the cotton."

Within a year Arnulfo Salinas moved the family to Galveston. "He had a desire to keep from disrupting the kids' education," explains Salinas. "He got a job at a cotton warehouse, left the migrant stream and settled in." The family took up residence at the Magnolia Homes housing project, nicknamed "Tortilla Flats" for its horizontal roofs and ever-present aroma of hot flour tortillas. "No air conditioning, and everybody's windows were open, so you could smell the wonderful tortillas. That housing, intended for poor people, was the best housing we had ever had," remembers Salinas. "That was the beginning of a new life."

The six Salinas children enrolled in public school, and Lupe quickly displayed an aptitude for math and reading. He was subsequently singled out by teachers for the somewhat condescending role that would be continually thrust on him until the indictments: that of the determined member of an ethnic minority who rises to great heights despite the odds.

"In the second grade I remember a teacher at San Jacinto Elementary taking me to another classroom to sit in front of the students to read," says Salinas. "That was to show off that she was able to teach somebody that wasn't supposed to know how to read. And trying to set an example to other kids that it can be done if they'd only work a little bit harder."

Because of his math skills, Salinas considered aiming for the space program, but a natural affinity for government and sharpening social views drew him into law. He graduated cum laude in political science from UH and earned his law degree at the school in 1972. By then he had married Orie Alvarado, with whom he had been close friends since their early teens.

Two years spent representing indigent Hispanics for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and three years with the Harris County District Attorney's appellate division positioned Salinas for an assignment in the newly created Civil Rights Division under Carter-appointed U.S. Attorney Tony Canales. The case that would give Salinas statewide recognition had already occurred: the fatal shooting of teenager Randy Webster by a Houston policeman. While Salinas was not directly involved in the investigation at the D.A.'s office, he says the autopsy reports and eyewitnesses indicated the police account was inaccurate -- that Webster, after a high-speed chase with police, had emerged unarmed from his stolen van and was shot down in cold blood.

His first assignment upon joining the U.S. Attorney's office in 1977 was the Webster case. He recalls being handed the case file by a superior, who told him: "There's a 'throw down' in this case. Find it. If you do, you'll get a medal." Embarking on a search for a sales receipt on the pistol, Salinas combed through the files of local gun dealers. Through the combination of tenacity and incredible luck, he traced the handgun to its original owner.

"We called the only name left in the phone book," recalls Salinas, with a tone of amazement that has survived thousands of tellings of the story. "A woman came on the line, and when asked about the weapon, exclaimed, 'Don't tell me that gun has caused more trouble.'" The weapon, it turned out, had been used in a 1964 suicide and from that scene had gone to the Houston Police Department's evidence room, from which it was taken by officer Danny Mays for use as a "throw down," a backup weapon that could be planted on a suspect if questions arose about the justification for a police shooting.

"Obviously, it was the most rewarding professional accomplishment for me as a lawyer," says Salinas. "Not only did it open the eyes of the public that some individuals do violate the law when they are sworn to uphold it, but too, it helped encourage the internal affairs type activities in police departments and make them more acceptable."

Salinas' career continued on an upward curve, with Governor Mark White appointing him to a state district court judgeship in 1983, a post he lost in the following year's Republican landslide. He made another unsuccessful run for judge in 1986 and finally, in 1988, bucked that year's Republican tide by unseating the GOP's Albert Pruitt, an incumbent who Salinas claimed had made a series of lenient rulings favorable to defendants accused of child molesting.

In 1992 Salinas ran unopposed, and by then he was beginning to explore options for advancement to the next judicial level. He had acquired a reputation at the courthouse as a fair if somewhat pro-prosecutor judge. A lawyer who practiced in his court recalls Salinas actually issuing an apology to the family of a crime victim because a jury in his court had acquitted the defendant. On the other hand, Salinas went out of his way to try to blunt the sting of a jury which convicted a Houston police officer of raping a woman prisoner at Memorial Park but refused to sentence the officer to prison, accepting the defense argument that his life would be in danger. "In punishment they convinced the jury that sending him to prison would be tantamount to the death penalty," says Salinas. The officer received 10 years probation. "When it got to me I leveled every possible condition, because I had heard the problem and he got away with murder. I gave him the maximum number of community hours, maximum days in custody."

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?"

"Let me give you another analogy," adds Holmes, who seems to have an inexhaustible supply. "I got a call from a bunch of people down in south Harris County, a municipality. They were irate because they perceived the police department was hassling all of their juveniles because they couldn't get through [City Council] a teen curfew. So when [the teens] would drive up and down the local drag, [the police] would bust 'em for not wearing their seat belts. They were irate about it, pure-dee harassment. Set up an appointment and came down to see me. And I said, well, it may be. But there's a way around that. The way around it is: wear your fuckin' seat belt!"

Awaiting Judgment
Salinas moved easily around the Thanksgiving party tossed at his courtroom, chatting, shaking hands and occasionally taking knowing pats on the shoulder and best wishes from court personnel and lawyers. The festivities clearly were lacking any pretense of holiday abandon, and conversation about the deep-fried turkey on the conference room table filled in some uncomfortable silences. William Hatten, the 82-year-old visiting judge filling in for Salinas during his suspension, sat by a window, his ivory hair and gray face even paler in the light.

Salinas shuttled between his office phone and the conference room party, at one point checking in with a contact in the Clinton administration about his increasingly long-shot judicial chance. "He said to keep them informed of developments," Salinas reported with a grimace.

The judge was feeling more combative after sustaining the initial shock of the indictments. "Not so much shame anymore," said Salinas, "but just regret that the system could be used in this fashion, to come out with an accusation of this nature. After a while I realized the people are behind me. The number of friends and people who see it for what it is and who are very, very supportive. Like that little lady who works at a very low salary who says, "Fight for us. Get in there and fight."

Just as the district attorney clearly believes Salinas is responsible for his legal problems, Salinas resolutely maintains that Warden is the source of all his troubles.

"There is that picture I get, like I owed her something. And I owed no one anything. I owed the position that I was involved in the best that I could offer, either from me or my staff. In getting to the feds the only thing I owed was to give the federal court and judiciary the respect it deserves."

Salinas says he's convinced that even if the federal appointment is lost, he'll weather the perjury charges and move on, with one important lesson learned. "The experience has caused things to be different," he says. "I don't think any public official should ever, ever again accept cash contributions. They're allowed under the law, but this is just a lesson that no public official should even get close to cash."

Orie Salinas says the explanation she gave the couple's three children about the indictment of their father is also what she'd tell his supporters. "I told them that they know Daddy," she says. "They know what he's come from and how hard he's worked. They know how he's lived his life. That people will always talk and say things, even if they know that it's not true. That's the way the world is. They have to be very strong. They have to trust him."

She finds the indictments incomprehensible, particularly since her husband is a stickler to the point of paranoia about walking the straight and narrow in other aspects of his life. She recalls how her husband would not let their daughter, Laurie, drive without carrying her learner's permit. Or how he refused to take cash from his mother at a fundraiser because it was over the limit.

"I know as well as Lupe does how much his career means to him," she adds. "I have seen the sacrifice that he has made to become what he has become and to stand at the doorway of a federal judgeship. To see him come so far from nothing, barefoot and poor, I know in my heart he would never do anything to jeopardize it."

A visiting district judge will hear the Salinas case next month in a Harris County courtroom. If Holmes has his way, it will be what Salinas didn't do -- in effect failing to wear his campaign report seat belt -- that sends his career through the windshield.

For a public servant who has performed so well for so long, the destruction of a career seems a terrible price to pay for such small mistakes.

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