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On an early August afternoon last fall, Robert Casey, a sergeant with the Harris County Constable's Office, was summoned into Constable Perry Wooten's office. Wooten was in trouble. A grand jury had indicted him on two felony charges: theft by a public servant and abuse of power. And just that week, the Harris County Attorney had filed a civil suit to remove the constable from office.
Wooten, whose employees referred to him as Idi Amin thanks to his weight and his dictatorial style, told Casey he needed money to pay his legal bills. He asked for $5,000. This wasn't too far out of the ordinary, according to Casey. In less than two years, Casey had handed Wooten more than $12,000 in loans and campaign contributions. But the loans were never repaid, so Casey stopped lending. "I didn't want to give him any more money," Casey says. "After I gave him my last check in December for $750, I told him I wasn't gonna give him any more money. None at all."
The constable told Casey that if he didn't give him the money, he would never work for Harris County again.
Instead of going to the bank, Casey went to the district attorney's office. He gave investigators copies of every memo Wooten wrote. Prosecutors told Casey his job was safe -- two days before, on August 5, Harris County Civil District Judge Tracy Christopher had signed an order preventing Wooten from firing employees.
The next day, Wooten asked Casey if he had the money.
Casey told Wooten he should step down, let someone else run the office, and concentrate on his criminal case. If Wooten voluntarily left office, his civil lawsuit would disappear and he wouldn't need the $5,000. Casey told Wooten he had talked to the district attorney and prosecutors had a lot of evidence against him.
Wooten fired him.
Assistant County Attorney Frank Sanders immediately drew up a motion to hold Wooten in contempt for violating the court order and scheduled an emergency hearing the next day. The Houston Chroniclereported that the judge denied the motion but said she would reconsider it at a previously scheduled removal hearing ten days later.
But that hearing never happened. A few days later, the county requested a nonresident judge and Chambers County District Judge Carroll Wilborn Jr. was appointed and the hearing was pushed back.
Before the Friday, August 23, hearing, Wooten settled with the county and the judge ordered a ten-month paid suspension. County Attorney Mike Stafford says the motion to hold Wooten in contempt is still pending.
Regardless, county attorneys got what they wanted: Wooten is out of office. But Casey is still out of a job. The county never rehired him.
Casey worked for the county 20 years. Before taking a job at Precinct 7, he spent 18 years as a Harris County sheriff's deputy. His first year, Casey was one of nine deputies assigned to a floor of inmates in the county jail. He spent the next 17 years working as a bailiff in the county courts. His job performance was never questioned; he received good annual reviews.
The county argued that Casey's termination was an example of Wooten's misconduct, but it didn't hire him back.
Desperate to keep his benefits, Casey applied for jobs at Precincts 2, 3, 4, 6 and 8. He was even turned down for an $11-an-hour position working once a week at the county's boot camp.
"They could have put me out feeding the animals out at Bear Creek Park so I could at least keep my seniority and my vacation and my sick time," Casey says. "Harris County didn't even offer to put me on a mowing crew."
The county attorney's office says Casey never officially reapplied for his Precinct 7 position, so the county didn't know he wanted his job back.
In late October, Casey and former Precinct 7 clerk Kimmi Valentine filed a whistle-blower suit claiming to be victims of discrimination and retaliation. "Wooten knew they were cooperating with the D.A. and terminated them as a result," says Houston attorney Michael Josephson. The precinct's former chief deputy, Joe Williams, joined the suit a month later.
Scheduled for trial this month, the suit alleges the three were fired after reporting Wooten's illegal activities. Josephson and attorney David George insist that information provided by their clients led to Wooten's indictment and later conviction; plus, Casey and Valentine testified at Wooten's criminal theft trial.
"They took advantage of these folks and used them to get Wooten out of office," Josephson says.
Josephson says his clients would like their jobs back. In the original petition, he demands lost wages including interest and overtime, reinstatement of fringe and retirement benefits and punitive damages for emotional stress.
The county attorney's response says the threesome probably would have been terminated even if they hadn't talked to the D.A. Stafford says the three were dismissed for independent reasons: Casey was fired for not giving Wooten money, Valentine was dismissed for poor job performance, and Williams was terminated because county policy permits a new constable to appoint new people.
"They did not blow the whistle on anybody at any point in time that had any effect on their treatment there at Precinct 7," Stafford says.