Bully on the Bench?

Abrasive encounters with some Hispanics, cash-and-carry court appointments coupled with hefty campaign contributions. Critics wonder if Pat Shelton's speedy dockets are outrunning justice.

Shelton says McGee is now in Las Vegas. The judge had no phone number for him, and McGee could not be located for comment. But McGee did have some understanding of the judge's political needs. He received payments from the judge's campaign account in the spring of 1998 totaling $2,075 -- in the same period, he was paid over $3,000 per month as Shelton's court coordinator. This occurred after McGee had taken a leave of absence from the court in the fall of 1997 to go to Las Vegas to train as a blackjack dealer, certainly an offbeat job for a court coordinator.

"He's been gone for a couple of years," claimed Shelton when questioned about McGee's activities. "He went up there to see if he could get a job. Used his comp and vacation time, and when that was expired, he came back and didn't have his position. Then he stayed with us for another six to eight months and then got the position he wanted."

According to county auditor records, McGee was paid as Shelton's court coordinator through July of last year, so he was not gone the "couple of years" recounted by Shelton. During that three-month sojourn in Las Vegas in the fall of 1997, he used 232 hours of accumulated comp time as well as vacation time.

A participant in Shelton's 1997-98 campaign recalls that the judge and McGee often spent the night hours together putting out campaign signs, an effort at which the judge excelled.

"Shelton was a maniac about signs," says the source, laughing. "He had signs everywhere...." McGee and the judge would put up signs all night long "night after night after night," says this observer.

Political consultants queried by the Press could recall no parallel example of a Harris County judge using his court coordinator to double as a paid campaign worker. Asked about it, Shelton dismissed the issue as a red herring raised by political opponents.

"He did physical labor, putting up the 'Shelton' signs you see on the road," explained the judge, as if manual rather than cerebral political work is more acceptable by a county employee.

"What is wrong with that?" asked Shelton. "Is it illegal? No. I can employ anybody I want to to help in my campaign. Whether they work for me or whether they're somebody else, a friend, whatever."

Shelton didn't address the issue of the appearance of impropriety when a court employee involved in arranging appointments of lawyers is also on the judge's political payroll, and allegedly soliciting campaign contributions for the judge in his role as court coordinator. Instead, he blamed his next-door neighbor and nemesis, Judge Craft, for trying to poison his judicial well.

"I know that you got interested because of an attorney playing a race card in the court," the judge told this reporter. In a reference to Craft, Shelton added, "And then you get information from your next source, I guess your next-door source, saying, 'Look at these attorneys, or Kevin McGee,' or this that and the other."

It's clear that while the judge may relish the role of quizzing those who come before his bench, he clearly doesn't cotton to having the queries coming from the other direction.

"What other great questions do you have?" purred the judge. "I want to make sure I have given my input, that I at least have the opportunity out of fairness to address it. Because you've raised a dozen different little areas of inquiry."

Unfortunately, we didn't have a map in hand to ask him where he came from.

Shortly after the Houston Press began asking questions about Shelton's cash appointment practice, the effort was discontinued. But not, contends Shelton, because there was anything wrong with it. The judge says his concern was the uncertain flow of payments to the lawyers who took the appointments.

"You have to understand the reason the program was discontinued was the bad checks that were given to lawyers, and that people would not pay [again] if the case was reset," says Shelton. "In my opinion, I didn't have any way to enforce any kind of contract with any kind of civil contempt like I could on a reimbursement to the county, where I could use the county attorneys to enforce the payment."

Shelton insists he was giving poor families a legal bargain with lawyers for $150, but they just wouldn't keep their end of the deal.

"Nobody came through," he laments. "Nobody had any reason. So all these working-class people -- and again, that was the reason to do it -- they're poor. They make $20,000, but they got six kids at home and have no money in the bank."

The judge figures he had found a great way to deliver affordable legal services to the masses, but they just didn't appreciate it.

"We couldn't get people to follow through and even pay that [$150 an appearance]."

So what's next? According to the judge, he'll give poor families a little more time to find an attorney, and if they don't, he'll start the process up again, with some added teeth.

"We're giving people two months rather than one month to hire an attorney, which still puts me in line with the other two courts as to when the kids come to court," explains Shelton. "How successful that is, we will see."

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