The Insider

Let's Get Really Wrecked
Given the FBI's continuing probes of the city's downtown hotel deal and its massive wastewater program, it's difficult to believe anyone remotely connected to City Hall would so feeble-minded as to engage in any possibly illegal activity. Yet several sources indicate the feds are investigating the circumstances of the city's recent elimination of the restricted system of "e-tag" permits for wrecker drivers.

While no details are available, one source claims the FBI has opened an "embryonic" probe of the handling of the wrecker regulations. City Attorney Gene Locke acknowledges he's heard rumors to that effect, but says he knows of no grounds for such an investigation. Given the internecine warfare between factions in the wrecker industry, one city source suggests the possibility that some previous holders of e-tag permits are trying to poison the well for everyone in retaliation for losing their inside track.

Polland Calling
Does Gary Polland's non-paid position as county Republican chairman give him an entree not available to other plaintiffs and criminal defense lawyers? You be the judge.

Polland is lobbying Harris County officials to agree to a $1.7 million settlement for client Mark Cepiel, who lost his job as a sheriff's deputy in 1995 when he was accused of billing the county for hours when he was actually working private jobs. After a jury acquitted Cepiel of a theft charge, he retained Polland to pursue damage claims against the sheriff's department. Cepiel had earlier hired Democrat and former assistant district attorney Jim Lindeman, who unsuccessfully challenged Commissioner Jerry Eversole in 1994 and could hardly expect to get favorable consideration from the GOP-dominated Commissioners Court, which must approve any settlement for Cepiel.

Polland wrote to Harris County Judge Robert Eckels last November demanding the settlement and claiming his client and family "suffered great emotional hardship" as a result of "the oppressive conduct of the Harris County Sheriff's Department." According to Polland, the sheriff's supervisors conducted a biased and inept investigation of Cepiel and suppressed evidence that would have exonerated the deputy. Sheriff Tommy Thomas, who was the department's chief deputy at the time of Cepiel's termination, denies those claims.

Polland's demand was forwarded to the five commissioners by County Attorney Mike Fleming after the GOP chairman requested a meeting with him. Republican Commissioner Steve Radack, for one, questions whether the GOP chairman should be representing "a client against Harris County, particularly against Republican elected officials." Radack says that since Cepiel received back pay from the county for the period during which he was out of work, "for [Polland] to pop into the county attorney's office wanting that ridiculous sum of money is outrageous."

Fleming says it's not unusual for the county attorney to meet with lawyers pushing settlements "if I know them." A source close to Fleming says, however, that the county attorney circulated Polland's demand simply to warn other county officials about what the party chairman was up to.

Polland sees nothing inappropriate in his actions. "I did not receive special treatment," he says, "and I think my client has a meritorious case." He's set an April 30 deadline for the county to settle Cepiel's claim and avoid a damage suit.

How About an Overnighter in Surfside?
It looks as if stressed-out state District Judges Jim and Jeannine Barr will never get that taxpayer-funded vacation getaway they so desperately need. Although the Barrs' request for the county to send them to a weeklong legal seminar on the West Indies island of Saint Kitts appeared on last week's Commissioners Court agenda, Doug Shaver, the chief administrative judge for the county's district courts, had the item pulled before commissioners had a chance to reject it. A similar request by the Barrs to attend a weeklong conference in England last year was killed by David West, Shaver's predecessor as administrative judge, on the grounds that tax-paid overseas trips were inappropriate.

E-mail Execution
It turns out that a printed copy of the e-mail state District Judge Mark Davidson sent to colleagues describing an appeals court judge as "Maurice 'Alzeimer's' [sic] Amidei" was faxed to Amidei by none other than a court employee for District Judge John Devine. A courthouse source says Devine fired the employee after the fax was traced to his court.

Neither Devine nor the firing victim responded to queries from The Insider. Devine may have been preoccupied with the public admonition he received last month from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct for a political meeting he held in his private chambers to announce his ill-fated bid for Congress. After taking a statement from Devine, the commission found that he had willfully violated the provision of the Code of Judicial Conduct that prohibits judges from using their offices to advance their private interests.

Of course, in this case, the meeting didn't advance Devine's interests very far.

Call The Insider at 624-1483, fax him at 624-1496 or e-mail him at Insider@houston-press.com.

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