By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
It's not often that judges go to court in Texas with their jobs at stake, but Houston may soon be the site of not one but two such tribunals. The Insider has learned that the 11-member State Commission on Judicial Conduct will conduct court hearings to consider removing state District Judges Jim Barr and William "Bill" Bell from office in response to complaints of improper conduct from lawyers and prosecutors.
The last such hearing occurred in Galveston three years ago and resulted in the removal of John Thoma as a county court judge. While not confirming the impending trials of Republicans Barr and Bell, Robert Flowers, the executive director of the judicial commission, says he cannot recall two judges from the same city being under the commission's gun at the same time during his 14 years with the agency.
Neither Barr and Bell returned phone messages from The Insider.
Both judges, according to courthouse sources, have been informed by the commission that the hearings could result in their removal from the bench. The two have informally discussed the complaints against them with the commission, which then voted to hold hearings presided over by special magistrates. In Barr's case, Judge Noah Kennedy of Corpus Christi is to convene the hearing on the morning of March 11 in Judge Ted Poe's court. Bell's tribunal is reportedly scheduled for late April.
The commission will issue its findings after evidence has been presented in the open proceedings. The rulings could range from dismissal of the complaints to reprimands to the actual removal of the judges and the stripping of their retirement benefits. When the process goes as far as a hearing, commission sources say, it usually means that the commission is seeking removal of the judge.
The nature of the violations alleged against the two judges differ. Barr presides over criminal cases, and his alleged questionable conduct includes ordering a Harris County sheriff's deputy, Rudolph Rendon, jailed last January for failing to appear as ordered in Barr's court. Rendon actually spent the night in his supervisor's office, but Barr's order angered Rendon's supporters in local law enforcement ranks.
Barr also generated a number of complaints with what his lawyer claims is routine lowbrow courthouse humor, but which others see as sexist and defamatory comments. In one incident, Barr crooked his finger to summon several female prosecutors to his bench. When the women asked what he wanted, Barr replied, "I wanted to see if I could make you come with one finger."
In another courtroom exchange, prosecutor Sally Ring had raised a number of objections to a defense lawyer's questions, prompting Barr to tell her that if she made any more objections, "I ought to slap the crap out of you."
In a third episode, Barr laughingly told an intermediary for lawyer Kent Schaffer, who had asked the judge to reset a court date, to "tell Schaffer to go screw himself."
Barr's attorney, George Parnham, says the exchanges were simply courthouse banter that has been taken out of context. As for Barr's jailing of Rendon, Parnham claims that law enforcement groups have pushed the complaint with the commission and that a finding against Barr will intimidate other judges from demanding that officers comply with court rulings and orders.
The complaints concerning Bell, a civil district judge, allege he had improper contacts with lawyers involved in two cases in his court. One of those is the toxic tort lawsuit by Kennedy Heights residents against Chevron.
At a convivial dinner party in January 1996, Bell reportedly offered attorney Holly Williamson an ad litem appointment to the Kennedy Heights case for what he billed as a generous fee. When Williamson explained she could not accept the offer because her firm represented Chevron on other matters, Bell went on to suggest she tell Chevron that it needed to replace its lead attorney, Bobby Meadows, because Bell thought he was a liar.
After Williamson informed Chevron's attorneys of her exchange with Bell, they requested that Bell recuse himself. The judge then called Allan Port, a partner at Meadows's firm, Gardere Wynne Sewell & Riggs, and suggested that Chevron should not push for his recusal. Port declined to discuss the details of that conversation with The Insider.
Bell eventually recused himself from the case, claiming one reason was that his father-in-law had hired John O'Quinn, one of the lawyers representing the Kennedy Heights residents. That statement, as it turned out, was not true. One source says Bell sheepishly explained later he had concocted the connection between O'Quinn and his father-in-law to save face for agreeing to recuse himself from the case.
In the other complaint, Bell allegedly initiated improper telephone contact with Vinson & Elkins attorney Margaret Wilson, who was representing the Catholic diocese in Corpus Christi in a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct by one of its priests. At the time of the call, Wilson had a motion pending before Bell seeking the transfer of the case from Houston to Corpus Christi.
Wilson declined comment, saying she has been subpoenaed by the judicial conduct commission. Another source familiar with the complaint says that Bell, in his call to Wilson, seemed to link Wilson's transfer motion to help the attorney might provide him in his difficulties arising from the Kennedy Heights case.
One courthouse regular is amazed that Bell would apparently embroil himself in a second web of questionable contacts with lawyers trying cases in his court after the judicial commission had begun probing complaints from the first.
"It's like, hey, this guy ain't gonna stop," says our source.
Not, apparently, until the Commission on Judicial Conduct takes his courtroom keys away.
There will soon be something new on the radio: Houston's first all-talk station on the FM dial -- and the first talk station to bill itself as ideologically middle-of-the-road -- debuts next week.
KRTK 97.1 Talk, which was Tejano station KOND in its previous incarnation, is backed by local investors drawn heavily from the ranks of plaintiffs' lawyers. Self-described "raging heterosexual moderate" Roger Gray leads off a roll of familiar names who'll be manning the mikes, including former KLOL jock Dayna Steele and Don Imus, the onetime Friend of Bill syndicated out of New York.
But who's going to be listening? Gray, who was ousted from KPRC's lineup of conservative talkers last fall, claims there's a wider audience in Houston waiting for a station that doesn't pitch exclusively to the right.
"One of the mistakes is letting your callers drive what your programming is," observes Gray, who is busy setting up the station is the CRSS building on the West Loop. "Callers will take you in directions you don't want to go. You want to be responsive, but by the same token, less than 10 percent of your listeners will ever call."
Gray discounts traditional radio wisdom that talk shows won't work on the FM band, long the home for music formats. He points out that KUHF, which features NPR in its morning and afternoon slots, actually has better Arbitron ratings than KPRC in the same time periods. KUHF also has a better mix of men and women listeners, a statistic that should appeal to advertisers.
David Jones, a Democratic activist and lawyer who has had several talk shows on cable and radio, came up with the idea for a new talk station and began pulling together the components, including Gray and the station's key financial backer, lawyer Gerald Birnberg.
Mike Stude, the previous owner, was also brought in as an investor, along with county Republican chairman and criminal defense lawyer Gary Polland, Vinson & Elkins attorney Gary Robin and plaintiffs' attorney Jim Moriarty. Jones says the investors put up $10 million to buy the station, not counting construction costs at the new site.
Just how well the city accepts a diet of Imus's edgy East Coast humor or how well a former rock DJ Steele adapts to the talk format remains to be seen. After all, observes a former co-worker of Steele's, "handling a talk show is a little different from introducing the latest Metallica hit."
Tune in to The Insider at 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax), or at Insider@houston-press.com.