The Insider

Though he did not testify at the Bell hearing, lurking behind the controversy at nearly every turn is embattled plaintiffs' attorney John O'Quinn, a Democrat currently under investigation by the State Bar of Texas and under indictment by the state of South Carolina for case running. In recent years, O'Quinn has taken to supporting some Republicans, including Bell and Judge John Devine, as successive GOP sweeps have eliminated most Democratic judges. O'Quinn is a financial contributor to Bell, and even referred to him at the two-day hearing conducted by Wood last year as "my judge." Several African-American residents of Kennedy Heights -- all clients of O'Quinn's firm -- attended sessions of the commission hearing in support of Bell.

The bestiary also includes GOP judicial kingmaker Frank Harmon, an attorney who directs the Citizens for a Well-Qualified Judiciary political action committee, which feeds money to a series of PACs controlled by Christian conservative nabob Steven Hotze.

Harmon is a confidant of West and several of the attorneys who testified against Bell. He formerly chaired Bell's campaign, but dropped off the team two years ago after claiming Bell lied to him and Hotze about signing a statement opposing the inclusion of abortion of the GOP party platform, one of Hotze's pet issues. Harmon was not called by the commission to testify, possibly because his web of connections might bolster Bell's claim that he is the victim of a political conspiracy.

The roots of Bell's professional troubles actually go back to late summer of 1995, when O'Quinn, representing Harris County Commissioners Court, sought a temporary restraining order against the Oilers to prevent the team from playing home games away from the Astrodome.

Civil district judges serve rotating stints on ancillary duty, where they hear incoming requests for injunctions and other special orders needing fast attention. By timing the filing of the TRO, O'Quinn apparently was able to have Bell consider the request. Bell quickly granted the order, provoking West's wrath.

According to West, Bell's granting of the TRO was a bad move. "TROs are strange things and we want to make sure not to get in the habit of granting [them]," the judge testified last week. West also indicated he thought Bell had been swayed by his connections to O'Quinn. "We all have pressure from the John O'Quinns of the courthouse," West testified. "That's why I get paid so much -- to resist that kind of pressure."

The next chapter in the Bell saga unfolded in an unlikely place, a GOP judicial soiree called "the Game Bird Dinner" in January of last year. There, Bell approached Holly Williamson and asked her whether she would be interested in taking a guardian ad litem assignment to represent the interests of children in the Kennedy Heights case. But Williamson, when she learned that Chevron was a defendant, explained that she represented the company on employment matters and would face a conflict of interest if she took the proffered appointment from Bell. Bell, she testified during last week's hearing, then asked her to send a message to Chevron that their lead attorney, Bobby Meadows, was a liar and no match for the team of lawyers assembled by O'Quinn.

(During his later testimony, Bell denied he said anything of the sort and professed admiration for Meadows's legal abilities.)

Williamson testified that she contacted Chevron as Bell had directed and passed on the judge's message. That triggered a flurry of phone calls between flustered Chevron lawyers, Bell and others. Williamson then consulted with Harmon, who brought the matter to West's attention. After Bell had several conversations with Chevron attorneys --the substance of which were disputed in hearing testimony -- West got into the act, meeting with Bell to raise his concerns about the judge's behavior. West claimed that Bell told him he would recuse himself from Kennedy Heights because he had recommended that his father-in-law hire O'Quinn in an unrelated oil and gas matter. West testified that when Bell told him he was hiring O'Quinn, West exclaimed, "The devil! That sounds really bad."

Following that conversation with West, both Bell and O'Quinn denied there had ever been an arrangement to hire O'Quinn to represent Bell's now former father-in-law.

In a second meeting with Bell at West's office that included Judge Don Wittig, West taped his heated conversation with Bell about his out-of-court contacts with the lawyers. "This job is hard enough without people doing things like this," West upbraided Bell. "You've got to join the corps of judges, stop talking to lawyers and start acting like a judge."

Bell testified last week that West had turned the tape recorder on and off, eliminating segments of the conversation that did not support his version of the talk. During a portion that was not recorded, Bell claimed, West had vowed to get him off the bench. Curiously, Wittig, who was present at the meeting, was not called as a witness by the judicial commission to settle the conflicting testimony.

After Bell recused himself from the Kennedy Heights case, it was transferred to Judge Tony Lindsay. The litigation was later moved from state to federal court, where it currently awaits trial before U.S. District Judge Ken Hoyt.

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