By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
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.
Wooten became constable of the south Harris County precinct January 1, 2001. The district attorney's office began its investigation ten months later. According to Donna Goode, division chief of the Public Integrity Division of the district attorney's office, the county auditor discovered Precinct 7 employees had billed the county for working more than 24 hours a day and working while on vacation. The auditor also discovered employees had double-billed the county and a temp agency for the same 40-hour week and had misappropriated a Texas Department of Transportation grant.
In May 2002, Wooten was charged with second-degree theft by a public servant. Prosecutors allege that he ran a time-sheet scam that netted employees approximately $96,000. Another indictment followed in July for abuse of official capacity after he was accused of appointing honorary deputies by selling county-purchased badges, and requiring on-duty deputies to keep him company while he watched television, to lend him money, or to drive to Brenham to buy his daughter groceries. Wooten was also accused of summoning staff to a mandatory meeting in the courtroom of the justice of the peace to discuss his re-election campaign fund-raiser. "You just can't do that," Sanders says. "That's not permissible."
In March, Wooten was convicted of theft and sentenced to five years in prison plus a $1 fine. He did not respond to the Press's request for an interview. The second charge of abuse of power is pending and scheduled for trial this month.
In early May, Wooten's attorneys filed a motion for new trial on the conviction. Wooten's criminal attorney, Robert A. Jones, says he hopes to get the second charge dropped.
Kimmi Valentine's desk was located outside Wooten's office. In her at-a-glance calendar, along with reminders of doctor's appointments, her mother's birthday and her son's basketball practice, she jotted notes about who went in Wooten's office, and stapled memos and Post-it notes from her supervisors. Anything she thought was wrong, she documented.
It was mandatory for staffers to sell tickets to Wooten's various fund-raisers; instead of selling her set, Valentine gave her tickets to the district attorney.
The D.A.'s investigator contacted Valentine shortly before Wooten's first indictment. She had lunch with the investigator at Boudreaux's, and on another occasion met him at the dollar store across the street from the precinct. She told the investigator that Wooten had a video camera outside his office, required employees to work unpaid overtime and had deputies run errands for him. "She was a cooperative witness," Goode says. "If we needed information we could contact her."
Valentine cried every day when she drove to Precinct 7. No one spoke to her in the office -- she believes Wooten discovered she was talking to the district attorney's office and threatened to fire employees if they spoke to her. Stressed and depressed, she refused to cook and yelled at her husband and sons. Her husband told her to resign. "I'm not a quitter," she says. "I'm not gonna let somebody make me quit." Her stomach was always in knots; she lost 70 pounds and temporarily moved in with her mother. "I stayed there, and I put up with it, but it cost me my family," Valentine says.
A nursing school dropout, Valentine had worked two years as an administrative assistant and dialysis technician, but she says she became too attached to patients. She took a payroll job at the Harris County Sheriff's Office largely because of the retirement package.
When Valentine received a subpoena to testify before the grand jury, Wooten gave her a $3-an-hour raise. The jury adjourned before she was called to testify. According to Valentine's affidavit, when she returned to the office, Wooten summoned her and asked what she had told the jury. She told him that she had answered questions truthfully.
She didn't tell him she did not testify. Later that same day, she was transferred to a criminal warrant clerk position in the dispatch area on the other side of the building.
Valentine was fired less than three months later. Her termination letter states: "Since you have been in your present position, you have failed to perform your duty. I have lost faith in you and your ability to do your job at Precinct 7."
While she was driving home from the office, Valentine says, the county attorney's office called her cell phone to set up a meeting. "The county knew she was fired before her husband did," Josephson says. The following week, Valentine signed an affidavit at the county attorney's office that was attached to the county's motion to remove Wooten from office. She claims an assistant county attorney informed her that she had a whistle-blower claim and said the real reason she was fired was because she had cooperated with the district attorney.
In an amended answer to the whistle-blower suit, the county wrote that Valentine does not have a claim because she didn't file the suit within the 90-day statute of limitations. Josephson argues that Valentine didn't know she was a whistle-blower until the county told her, which was within the three-month window.
Valentine's affidavit says that one month before she was fired she received two commendations for exceptional work. The county attorney's office insists Valentine was fired for poor work performance as documented in her personnel file.
Valentine's attorney contends the county created the unsigned and often undated disciplinary reports that accuse Valentine of raising her voice to the constable, insubordination, poor telephone etiquette, unprofessional office demeanor, frequent errors, not doing work in a timely manner, being uncooperative with co-workers and making numerous personal calls. "We think they manufactured evidence," Josephson says.
The county attorney's office explains that when the D.A. subpoenaed Valentine's personnel file, all disciplinary documents were missing. The documents are unsigned because a clerk reconstructed the file by printing out Microsoft Word documents; the county attorney's office emphasizes the documents were verified by the original authors.
Valentine's supervisor said in a deposition that Valentine was an uncooperative employee who disregarded office rules and policies and was "very grumpy, dissatisfied and unhappy."
If Valentine was so unemployable, Josephson asks, why did the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office hire her as a file room assistant less than a month after she was fired from Precinct 7?
She's since taken a new job with the county, and now works as a human resource representative in the public health department. She took a $3.50-an-hour pay cut and is three months behind on her Visa and MasterCard bills.
Williams spent his career striving to be Harris County's first African-American sheriff. Williams grew up on Snook Lane about ten houses from Wooten. The two went to grade school together, played on the Tomball High School football team and when Wooten's parents moved to a new subdivision, Wooten's younger brother, James, moved into the Williamses' home.
Williams has a degree in criminal history and worked for the Harris County Sheriff's Office for 26 years. His performance evaluations were all good, except for a three-day suspension in 1978 for failing to call dispatch. Williams says he was patrolling Spring Branch when a guy blocked the road, made racial slurs, pulled a weapon and said he was going to waste him. Williams fired at the man but missed. "He was gonna kill me. I didn't have any choice," Williams says. He says he didn't contact dispatch because an HPD officer already had.
Wooten offered him the job of chief deputy, promising Williams would run the office. Williams thought the added responsibility would prepare him to run for sheriff.
Two months after Wooten took office, Williams says, he reported to the county attorney's office that Wooten required employees to work an extra hour every day without pay to "give back to the community." Williams says he asked if it was legal to require people to work without compensation; an assistant county attorney e-mailed him that it most certainly was not legal, and he took that e-mail to Wooten.
Near the end of July, Wooten told Williams he found had porn on Williams's county computer. "I said, 'No, no, no,' " Williams insists. He explains that he never intentionally went to a porn site -- he says he received an e-mail and clicked on a link that accidentally took him to a porn site.
Williams says Wooten told him the county attorney wanted to fire him; he suggested Williams take a few days off until Stafford cooled down. Wooten wrote in Williams's file that he was placed on a 15-day suspension.
When Wooten stepped down, Michael Butler was appointed the new constable. His first full day in the office, Butler gave Williams a letter saying that when Wooten was suspended, Williams's employment with the agency ended. "When I took over office, everyone's term here ceased to exist," says Butler, the former Precinct 1 chief deputy.
Butler hired a new chief deputy whom he had known for 20 years; Butler says he wanted to work with someone he trusted. He says he didn't want to humiliate Williams by demoting him. "Usually when a person has been in a position of chief it's hard for him to do something else," Butler says. "I thought it would probably be best if we just part company." Williams was only 16 months away from being eligible to retire with a full pension and benefits.
Josephson argues that Williams was fired because he knew too much about Wooten not paying employees. "It looks pretty bad if you've got a guy that comes forward and says, 'You've known about this, you could have done something about this two months after Wooten took office,' " Josephson says.
Josephson filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that the county had violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. The original petition asserts that "thousands and thousands of dollars have been withheld from the hard-working people" of Precinct 7. Josephson says the county attorney did not protect Precinct 7 employees by investigating the wrongdoing Williams had reported.
The county attorney's office counters that Williams never specifically reported illegal action. The county claims that Williams spoke hypothetically, asking, If Wooten did this, would it be wrong?
Technically, Stafford says, Williams wasn't terminated. Since Wooten placed Williams on suspension, the new constable "left the suspension in place, which was tantamount to letting him go," Stafford says. "Bottom line is he no longer works here."
The county's main defense is that Harris County policy permits a new constable to hire a new staff. As soon as a constable is sworn into office, everyone in the precinct is automatically terminated and it's up to the constable's discretion to rehire employees.
"Which I think is terribly unfair," Josephson says. But, since it's county policy, it isn't illegal. So the second week of May, Williams's whistle-blower claim was nonsuited. Josephson decided instead to pursue Williams's case in the overtime class-action suit; Williams had not previously been a party to the suit because he was a salaried employee, exempt from receiving overtime. Josephson now argues that Williams was retaliated against for reporting that Wooten wasn't paying overtime.
The county attorney's office says Williams was not retaliated against because it was Butler who terminated him -- and Butler had no idea that Williams had spoken with the county attorney's office.
When his employment ended, Williams applied for several Harris County jobs, but no one would hire him. "After putting in almost 26 years with Harris County, I figured they'd have a job there someplace for me," Williams says. "Everybody that I called said, 'We'll take care of you. We're gonna give you a job.' " But potential employers told him he was "too hot" and that he must have done something bad at Precinct 7 that he wasn't telling people.
He lost 30 pounds and started sleeping away his days. He woke up at 4:30 a.m., got his 12-year-old son, Joey, off to school, then went back to bed; in the late morning he looked for jobs, then slept all afternoon.
His daughter Jennifer is majoring in criminal justice at the University of Houston's downtown campus. He worries about how he's going to pay her tuition. For the last several years Williams held an administrative desk job. Now he's patrolling Prairie View A&M University as a security guard.
The Monday after Wooten was suspended, Robert Casey called the constable's office and asked Williams when he could come back to work. But Williams himself was fired that day.
Casey's personnel file contains nothing but good reviews. But the county attorney's office contends he didn't do good work.
"I've got thousands and thousands of documents from the county, and there isn't anything that suggests he was a bad employee," Josephson says. "If they were going to fire him, that's not documented. He was an outstanding employee."
Casey was the sergeant supervising the toll road. The county attorney's office says there were numerous complaints that he did not do his job. The county says that he was transferred after the toll road authority threatened to pull the contract if Casey wasn't removed.
In a deposition, the new constable says if he had been in charge when the toll road authority's EZ TAG audit showed that Casey wasn't properly patrolling, he "would not have worked another day." Instead, Wooten transferred Casey to being in charge of the precinct's program that strives to keep kids from smoking, doing drugs and joining gangs. The county contends that he didn't properly run the program and required deputies to do his work.
Despite allegations of poor performance, the county maintains that Casey was fired because he didn't give Wooten the money. Butler did rehire people he says Wooten wrongfully terminated; he says Casey never asked him to consider rehiring him.
The district attorney's office discredits Casey's whistle-blower claim, saying he didn't contribute new information to the case. "He was not instrumental," Goode says. "He was not helpful to us."
Goode began investigating Wooten in October 2001 -- nearly a year passed and she was ready to take the case to trial when Casey approached her. "Our case was already wrapped up," Goode says. "That was the midnight hour."
Casey says prosecutors were finishing his sentences. Goode says that's because he didn't provide her with information she didn't know.
"That's not a whistle-blower," she says. "That's somebody who realizes, 'I'm going to lose my job because I'm not going to come up with $5,000.' "
To legally qualify as a whistle-blower, Casey didn't have to report wrongdoing the minute he knew about it, Josephson says. He just had to have adverse employment action (e.g., to be fired) within 90 days of reporting illegal action to the proper authority.
"Their position has absolutely no value," Josephson says. "It's not the law. Maybe it's what they want it to be. But it's not the law."
Casey applied for more than 50 jobs but hasn't received a single offer. His wife took a $7-an-hour job with the Conroe Independent School District so the family could have health insurance.
On Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays Casey hunts the Web, applying for jobs online. He searches newspaper classified ads and sends out résumés; he looks at the Harris County job openings every other week.
He worked as a clerk at Safeway for eight years before joining the force, so he has applied for assistant manager jobs at stores such as H-E-B, Target and Academy.
When Casey was hired at the sheriff's office, a high school diploma was sufficient. But most police and security jobs he's applied for require college credit, so he paid $800 and earned 36 hours of college credit through an Arizona-based correspondence course.
Tuesday nights he takes flyers to the Masonic lodge and asks his fellow freemasons to call him if they hear of a job. On Wednesday nights he volunteers as a reserve police officer in Patton Village to keep his police commission. The rest of the week he spends cleaning his house and yard. He's learned how to run the dishwasher, sort laundry and make meat loaf.
He cashed in his IRAs, sold his interest in a strip club and the 1967 Mustang he restored. "I needed something to live on," he says. Property taxes on his house are going up, the car insurance is due, and he has credit card debt. Luckily, he says, his investments in the Midtown restaurant Farrago and the Seven Lounge have started paying off.
Still, Casey can't sleep -- he goes to bed late and wakes up early. He sits in bed staring into the dark worrying about how he's going to pay the bills that will be in his mailbox tomorrow.
"Maybe I shouldn't have even went to the district attorney's office," Casey says. "Maybe I should have kept my mouth closed and looked the other way."