Republican delegates packed the George R. Brown Convention Center for their annual June meeting, and now the final premier moment shifted to the host, Gary Michael Polland.
As chairman of the GOP in Harris County, Polland took to the podium to deliver a farewell talk to this impressive statewide assemblage of his peers. Many of them couldn't help but notice the 49-year-old party official earlier. The county's booth outside the convention hall featured an oversize portrait of Chairman Gary. And booth vendors hawked his rather presumptuous updating of a vintage Ronald Reagan speech (priced at a bargain-basement $4.50). County chairs traditionally are the insiders, specialists in organizing for their respective parties, but in his four-year tenure Polland has taken the low-profile position to peak public visibility. Along the way, the county party has unified and thrived on the chairman's spitfire political abilities. Even his friends jokingly refer to "Scary Gary" in tribute to his obsession with the political game.
That hard work paid off for the dominant Republican Party -- and for Polland personally. On the municipal stage, Polland is increasingly seen as the key to make or break bond issues and sports stadium referenda. No less than Enron's Ken Lay recently had to take the personal assignment of trying to neutralize the GOP chairman after Polland-led forces soundly defeated the last basketball arena vote.
Nowhere is Polland's influence felt more than in the courthouse, where he has emerged as a kingmaker of sorts. In the past three years as chairman, Polland the attorney has pulled in a staggering $446,690 in civil and criminal court appointments from the all-GOP judiciary. He now frequently pops up on legal teams in cases far removed from his original criminal law niche. There's the growing perception -- factual or not -- that retaining him on a case ensures a favorable ear from judges.
"I do kind of think he's full of shit," says a Republican judge, one among many who will not challenge the party leader on the record. "I soured on the guy when I saw the kiosk where the picture of him was bigger than any of the rest of the party stuff. He's never struck me as a guy who was doing it for philosophical reasons. It was always to get a leg up on his legal deal."
To be certain, his ham-handed and self-promoting tactics occasionally blow up in his face. That happened in the botched attempt earlier this month to pressure two Republican appeals court judges to reverse their ruling that overturned the state sodomy law. "The dumbest thing I've seen cooked up by a bunch of adults in a long time," a GOP activist chortled about Polland's pressure.
Despite the occasional controversies, Polland proudly stepped to center stage of the state GOP convention on this waning Saturday afternoon in June. He cleared his throat and began to address the masses.
Only the masses were sounding the retreat. Protracted wrangling by the nominating committee had prolonged the session for three hours. Die-hard conservatives hungered for no more than dinner at this point. Polland tried halfheartedly to sound the attack anew. He tried rousing the audience with sarcastic questions targeting Democratic standard-bearer Al Gore.
Delegates continued their exodus. After only three and a half minutes at the podium, Polland said his good-bye and the convention officially concluded.
No matter. This was a Jewish activist in a county party swayed by Christian conservatives; a criminal defense attorney in a GOP that despises leniency for lawbreakers and their defenders.
There's no question Polland commands power -- whether he gets respect remains a subject of some debate.
"The people that are responsible for putting him there don't really care for him," opines Larry Doherty, an attorney who worked with Polland many years ago. "I get the impression that behind his back they're laughing at the use they're getting out of him. He makes an example of diversity within the Republican Party. I think it's a joke."
Paul Bettencourt, a Polland political soul mate whom the GOP chair helped elect to the tax assessor-collector position, replies that Doherty's analysis is very dated.
"Maybe at first people laughed at his grassroots efforts," Bettencourt says, "but no one's laughing at Gary Polland anymore."
Whatever his inner motivations, Chicago native Polland has been on the conservative bandwagon since his teenage years. Wife Esther often tells the story of her then-student husband playing Reagan tapes in the early '70s when he was earning a degree in business administration and then law at the University of Texas. Polland remembers that he first decided he was a conservative at age 14, when he heard Reagan deliver his "A Time for Choosing" address in 1964. That was long before Reagan emerged as the consensus conservative hero who defeated George Bush in the 1980 GOP presidential primary and ousted Jimmy Carter from the presidency.
Polland's relationship with the Houston Jewish community has been problematic over the years. He first made media waves in Houston in 1994 when he resigned under pressure as regional chairman of the Anti-Defamation League. He charged that the ADL, the Jewish equivalent of the NAACP, unfairly attacked Christian conservatives. Polland had joined 75 other Jewish conservatives in criticizing the ADL for publishing a book, The Religious Right: Assault on Tolerance and Pluralism in America.
In 1997 New York magazine quoted Polland as telling a Washington, D.C., conference of conservatives that "the liberal Jewish community is the enemy" and "the intellectual backbone of everything that's wrong in this country." Although Polland later denied those quotes, the author checked her notes and reconfirmed them for the Houston Press.
Democratic lawyer David Jones, a friend and former business partner of Polland's in a talk radio station, says Polland "seems to rub a lot of Jewish folks the wrong way." Jones, who hosts a weekly political talk show with Polland on a cable access channel, says, "I see more animosity directed at Gary from people in the Jewish community."
Oddly, while Polland was establishing himself as The Jewish Conservative in the city, he was working with a succession of liberal Democratic lawyers. After leaving the Doherty office, he shared space with the late Will Gray, Stanley Schneider and Carolyn Clause Garcia, a Democrat who would go on to become a civil district judge.
Schneider, along with Gray and Garcia, had more than 30 death row cases at one time. "It was like strange bedfellows," Schneider recalls about Polland's association with Gray. "Talk about dichotomies. What's a Republican conservative lawyer doing hanging out with the dean of death penalty lawyers?"
Schneider figures Polland's innate aggressiveness found a natural outlet in the combative, contentious realm of criminal defense. "Gary has always felt that people who are accused of crimes are entitled to the best representation they can possibly get, and he's always worked hard at that. That goes back 23 years."
Garcia remembers Polland as an easy guy to read. "Gary Polland was then and has always been precisely what he purports to be. When he's a jerk, he's a real jerk, and when he's a nice guy, he's a nice guy.
"He was a Republican way before Republicans were popular. He wouldn't support a Democrat unless there was nobody else running, but he also wouldn't mind coming to Democratic judges and asking for court appointments."
Jones wonders if Polland really holds the hard-core Republican tenets, even those he regularly espouses.
"I think Gary is an economic conservative of the Ayn Rand variety, and I think he is not a social conservative, and that he plays the game," says Jones. "I do not believe that he believes that stuff for one minute. He's never told me that, but I can see it in the twinkle of his eye and the wink."
In 1995, Polland, a Bellaire resident and father of two, stepped fully into the political world. Betsy Lake, the moderate who was chair of the local party, remembers him inviting her to an unusual lunch in the spring. During the meal, Polland asked Lake if she was running for re-election as GOP chair the following year. Lake told him she hadn't decided -- whereupon Polland informed her he was running whether she stepped down or not.
Lake chose not to seek another term at the helm that year. Polland ran against her choice as a successor, attorney Roland Chamberlin. Polland garnered support from the conservative party county executive committee and such figures as term-limits activist Clymer Wright and Chase Untermeyer, president Bush's former aide. With that kind of backing, he won with 53 percent of the vote. Polland has been re-elected twice since then without serious challenge.
He has earned his success through sheer sweat, says Bettencourt, describing Polland as a tenacious policy wonk who refuses to take no for an answer. Friends say the two have become so close that they can complete each other's thoughts in mid-sentence. Bettencourt recalls turning Polland down 13 times before finally agreeing to work for his election as chairman.
"That's the Polland M.O.," chuckles Bettencourt, sitting at the conference table in the tax assessor-collector office that Polland helped him win.
Bettencourt credits Polland with unifying the party and guiding it to almost total dominance of countywide politics.
"To quote Reggie Jackson, Gary is the straw that stirs the drink," explains Bettencourt. "He always is stirring it up, and therefore patterns don't set in that could be permanently detrimental. When a party becomes so dominant, it has to really watch that factionalism doesn't set in and become the driving force."
After successfully fusing the conservative and moderate wings of the local GOP into a working organization, Polland went looking for new worlds to conquer. He found them at City Hall.
Dave Walden, the tough, wiry mayoral chief of staff during Bob Lanier's administration, is a political operative who faced a big challenge in '98. The Houston Independent School District had been thrashed in its efforts to push through a bond election the previous year.
He and others needed a way to reverse public resistance to a new bond referendum for the district. Republican officials on HISD's side, including school trustee Jeff Shadwick, came up with an idea: Why not enlist the aide of GOP Chairman Polland?
"The whole crowd had been working him over pretty good to get his support for the new bond issue after the old one failed," recalls Walden. Polland wanted cash to fund a mailer in Republican precincts and to pay for a consultant, which the pro-bond group provided.
It's a common practice for Democratic constituency groups like the Baptist Ministers Association and the AFL-CIO to ask candidates and political action committees for cash contributions to fund get-out-the-vote efforts and hire Election Day poll workers. Walden credits Polland as the first GOP figure to apply that to non-party contests.
"He's taken the contingency-fee philosophy of trial attorneys and moved it over into his political party. He had this attitude that 'Unless you come up with this huge amount of money, I ain't doing shit.' "
No one could quarrel with the results in the school bond election. It passed easily with strong support in the same Republican suburbs that had voted against HISD previously.
Walden remembered that clout last year, as he joined the team trying to gain passage of the Houston Port bond issue. He began negotiating with a Polland emissary, Steve Payne, for GOP support. Payne is a political operative whose father, Jerry, owns Caligula XXI, a topless club.
Polland, Walden was told, would back a resolution of support for the bonds through the Republican Executive Committee. "He had this negotiator come talk to me about what they would need in order to do that," Walden says, "and it was some outrageous amount of money maybe $75,000."
The funds would go for a direct-mail effort and program similar to what Polland did for GOP candidates. Polland's right-hand man was to be consultant George Hutson, whom Polland had picked for the school bond effort. Hutson has extensive connections to area religious conservatives and was campaign manager for the Christian right's John Devine in an unsuccessful attempt by the judge to win the 25th Congressional District GOP nomination.
Polland had already instituted a coordinated campaign for the party with individual candidates who were expected to contribute a set amount to the joint party effort.
In the case of the port bonds, the proposed alliance never happened. Walden says Polland couldn't deliver the executive committee support and was paranoid that he would be cheated out of the $75,000 he had demanded.
"According to Payne, Gary kept thinking I was going to screw him in getting the money," says Walden. "I told them I couldn't spend the kind of money they wanted -- I just didn't have it."
According to Walden, Payne phoned him to set up a three-way conference call with Polland. But Payne got Walden's answering machine instead. It began recording the conversation between Polland and Payne, who were unaware of the connection with Walden's line.
"He clicked off and Gary came on the line, cussing my ass out," recalls Walden. "Payne must have realized it was being recorded because he quickly said, 'Gary, let me call you right back.' "
In a written response, Polland claimed he told the port bond supporters "they would need to send key information to Republicans on the issue which they could do with our help or we could."
There was no deal. Polland's resolution of support for the port bonds died in the GOP Executive Committee, but the bond issue passed anyway. By that time, however, Polland, political soul mate Bettencourt and Hutson were on to much bigger game, the downtown basketball arena.
Last November, Pappa La Rosa's filled with a special set of election-night revelers relishing victory -- theirs -- through defeat. Polland and Bettencourt were men of the moment among the crowd at the west Houston restaurant.
They'd taken on Mayor Lee Brown and the downtown establishment over the referendum to provide Rockets owner Les Alexander with a new home court. And the duo and their allies had crushed arena proponents at the polls. Credit went to the GOP's organizational effort -- and a highly questionable infusion of mystery campaign cash from Polland himself.
County political chairs traditionally relied on their party bank accounts for minor expenses and to pay for their re-election campaigns. Contributions were usually minimal. Former GOP chair Lake says she used the donations to pay assorted bills; Sue Schechter, the head of the county Democratic Party, says the balance in her account usually hovers around $900.
However, that minimalism is part of the pre-Polland era of politicking. The chairman realized a very important point about such accounts: Unlike regular campaign contributors, donors to this account can remain secret. While relatively strict laws govern other political contributions, there are no laws requiring the reporting of the sources for this fund.
Bettencourt says Polland himself made the revelation about transforming it into a slush fund. During the heady victory celebration at the restaurant, Polland was remarkably unguarded as he explained his maneuver:
"Prior to the [anti-arena] PAC being formed, when people started sending money to fight the arena, they sent it to me." Polland told the contributors, "You can write a check to the Republican Party, you can wait till the PAC forms, or you can write a check to my campaign account." Polland explained that many contributors took option No. 3, which would not force them to be identified publicly.
While arena opponents used some of the names of arena campaign contributors for attack ads against the referendum, Polland's ploy allowed publicity-shy opponents of the referendum to privately contribute nearly a quarter-million dollars to Polland. He passed it on to the anti-arena political action committee without identifying the contributors.
"I never even dreamed of doing something like that," says Lake. "I wasn't trying to get that kind of money anyway. I was just trying to pay the bills." The Democrats' Schechter says Polland's activities violate the intent of state law.
"I think it's dishonest," Schechter complains. "I think it shows a lack of integrity, using the system in a way it was never meant to be."
On election night Polland refused to provide the names of the anti-arena contributors, but laughingly promised, "When this is all over, I'll send a letter to everybody who gave me money asking for permission to release. If they give me permission, I'll give it to you first."
That was before a state ethics commission lawyer opined that what Polland had really done was accept an illegal pass-through contribution, a possible Class A misdemeanor carrying a $4,000 fine and a year in jail.
State law, according to ethics commission attorney Karen Lundquist, forbids anyone to accept money from a third party with the express purpose of contributing it to a political action committee.
Then Democratic attorney Terry O'Rourke filed a complaint about the money-shuffling with the district attorney's public integrity section. According to a source in the D.A.'s office, most of the $223,000 put in Polland's account came from a single mystery donor, who signed an affidavit swearing he had given the money to Polland with no strings attached. Polland changed his story from the version on election night, and now claims the cash was donated to be used as he pleased.
"If the person donated the money to the county chairman without the intent or the knowledge for it to be given to anybody's purposes, then that money is free and clear," says Bettencourt. "If that is true, then it's just like me writing a check for $2,500 ."
Polland declined to comment to the Press, citing an ongoing investigation by the ethics commission.
The district attorney's investigation ended with no action by a grand jury. The panel apparently found it plausible that someone would give a quarter-million dollars to Polland without knowing how it would be used. The panel was not polled to find out how many believed Santa Claus is alive and well somewhere in Harris County.
Finding new and interesting uses for his chairman's account isn't the only creative party financing scheme Polland has pioneered.
He is the first chairman to legally make himself the personally registered agent for the Harris County Republican Party. The county clerk's office filing, similar to those made by anyone who wants to transact business under a company name, comes under what is known as a DBA -- "doing business as" -- in this case, as the GOP here. Even Bettencourt says he was unaware of the maneuver or its purpose.
Polland then got the party into the advertising business by selling space in his Chairman's Report, a brochure mailed quarterly that included primary and runoff editions. It was a popular sell. Seventh District congressional candidate Peter Wareing paid $10,000 to the party for his ad. District 25 winner Phil Sudan, managed by Polland's pal Hutson, forked over $5,000. According to rival consultant Allen Blakemore, that's likely only a fraction of the total money flow that will become apparent after the final campaign report filings later this month.
The primary issue of the Chairman's Report also featured a candidate slate advertisement by the "Harris County GOP PAC." Since it was the only slate included in the document, it left the impression that Polland and the party leadership had endorsed candidates in the primary. The snubbed candidates and their consultants protested. Even Bettencourt criticizes his close friend for letting that happen.
"I have made it clear I don't ever want to see that in a party piece again," says Bettencourt. "Ultimately the buck stops with [Polland]. It doesn't make any difference why the decision was made; it was wrong."
At the same time, Polland associate George Hutson set up the Harris County Conservative Review, a publication that is nearly identical to the Chairman's Report. The editor recruited was local journalist Ed Wendt, who was successfully defended by Polland for his arrest in a dispute with a police officer outside a City Council meeting. But when it came time to publish the Conservative Review, Wendt's copy was thrown out and replaced with a message from Polland and partisan endorsements of selected GOP candidates.
At the time, Hutson had dispatched Wendt to Austin to research Commissioner Steve Radack's financial and political records. Radack and Polland had been at political odds since backing rival candidates for the tax assessor-collector position. Radack lost that fight when Bettencourt won the support of the county GOP Executive Committee for the job.
The Conservative Review collected at least $100,000 from congressional and local candidates in advertising fees for general election and runoff issues. Sudan, whose campaign manager, Hutson, just happened to be the publisher, paid $37,600 himself to the publication.
Wendt says Hutson confirmed that the money was run through a bank account opened with Wendt's social security number, although the editor says he did not sign any authorization for that to be done. He only learned about the account later when he was renting a car. A credit check indicated a Bank of America account linked to him had been overdrawn, he says.
Polland later told Wendt he had no knowledge of Hutson's activities. While Wendt's copy was killed, the Review carried an editorial attack on GOP District Judge Martha Hill Jamison. It cited donations she had made to Planned Parenthood and the Houston Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.
"Over the past few election cycles, under the watchful eye of Harris County Republican Party Chairman Gary Polland, conservatives in this county have all but eliminated liberal representation," the Conservative Review stated. After warning that liberals in disguise might try to creep in the back door of the party, the paper declared, "we will not be fooled by candidates like Martha Hill Jamison, whose past actions are totally against our shared conservative principles."
Wendt later apologized to Jamison for the attack. He says he never had any indication that Polland was connected to the Harris County Conservative Review, and remains grateful for the attorney's help in Wendt's acquittal on charges stemming from the City Hall arrest. He is angry at Hutson and feels used.
Hutson refused to discuss the Review and declined to reveal any Polland links to it.
"You're going to have to ask Gary about that, okay? If you want to submit something to me, that's great. But in all honesty, you're calling me on my cell phone and I'm in the middle of a meeting and don't have time to talk to you."
Polland describes Hutson as a friend who has done volunteer work for the Republican Party but is not paid from GOP funds. The chairman claims his only connection with the Review was to allow it to run excerpts from his own party newsletter.
This despite the fact his close associate published it, his former client Wendt was used as the front man, and the publication mimicked Polland's own director's report. The publication even has an endorsement slate that, with one exception, is identical to the one in Polland's publication.
It may be a circumstantial case, but as the veteran criminal defense attorney knows, plenty of his clients have been convicted on a lot less.
While Polland got short shrift in the public spotlight at the June state convention, his real coup came behind the scenes. He harangued party caucuses into inserting into the state GOP platform a denunciation of two 14th Court of Appeals justices, Republicans John Anderson and Paul Murphy. In his mind, they committed party heresy by ruling that the state's hoary old sodomy law was unconstitutional because it criminalized sexual behavior for gay people that is permissible for straight couples.
Consultant Blakemore says he worked with Polland on the effort to get the denunciations inserted in the party platform. Oddly, Polland now claims he had no role whatsoever in the effort.
Not content with the plank in the platform against the judges, Polland turned his tempest to the GOP chairs in 14 Houston-region counties covered by the 14th Court of Appeals. He wanted them to sign a letter calling on Anderson to change his opinions in the case or resign from office. In issuing that kind of ultimatum, Polland risked violating both State Bar of Texas canons of ethics and state penal codes forbidding attorneys and others from privately pressuring judges on pending legal matters.
"At the Victory 2000 dinner [after the convention], several people said, 'Let's do a letter,' and Gary was kinda leading the charge," recalls Paul Simpson, party treasurer and former general counsel. "They said, 'You write it.' For whatever reason, I agreed to do it." Simpson drafted a letter and sent it to Polland, who made a few changes and then mailed it.
"As the Texas Republican Platform states," the missive says, "homosexual behavior tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family and is a hazard to public health your opinion blatantly defies the Republican Party Platform and creates potential for further damage to our society."
Simpson says he almost immediately had second thoughts about the wisdom of contacting the judge.
"From a political basis, I didn't think it was something we ought to be doing," explains Simpson. "And from a legal basis, we shouldn't be doing this to a judge ." Simpson says it's "sacrosanct" to him never to talk privately to judges about cases, even those not directly involving him.
Simpson says it took several days to convince Polland and others that the letter was a mistake. By that time, some of the county chairmen had already balked at signing the letter, which had been anonymously faxed to Anderson. The jurist distributed it to other justices on the appeals court. District Attorney Johnny Holmes was contacted as well, and Polland's bright idea had blown up into a judicial brouhaha.
It was left to Simpson to deliver the follow-up note advising the chairmen to drop the matter. "We believe Justice Anderson's opinion was incorrect and the result deplorable. However, after further consideration and reflection [o]ther means of political action, we believe, will be more appropriate and effective."
Consultant Blakemore worked with Polland to get the denunciation of the judges written into the state party platform, but he believes the chairman erred in launching the letter-writing campaign.
"To call on a judge to change his opinion, well, I'm not a lawyer, but that's bad," says Blakemore. "You're not supposed to do that. People have alleged that that's a criminal violation."
Bettencourt says the effort was ill-conceived. "If you don't like what somebody has done, express your opinion. But under no circumstances should anybody be lobbying people to reverse their opinions while the case is active."
However, all Republican judges don't seem to merit the same ideological scrutiny from Polland. The chairman in the past denounced President Clinton as a "murderer" for his stance opposing a ban on partial birth abortion. The GOP party platform also adheres to a strict right-to-life position on abortion, excluding the three exceptions accepted by moderates: rape, incest and endangerment of the life of the mother.
But Polland doesn't mention that his brother-in-law, appellate Justice Murry Cohen, whom he talked into switching parties last year, is married to Meryl Cohen, a prominent Planned Parenthood official. Justice Cohen has attended Planned Parenthood events in the past, and agency officials who've met him do not recall him espousing a right-to-life position. (Neither Cohen nor his wife returned Press inquiries concerning his stance on abortion.)
"The rumor is he told Murry that if he didn't change, someone would run against him, and he wouldn't do anything to protect him," says Carolyn Garcia, "even though he probably thinks Murry is a very fine appellate judge, as a lot of people do. I'm just opposed to judges changing parties for political purposes, only to get ahead. 'Cause I think that communicates to the general public that there's something political about being a judge."
(Polland denies promising political protection to Cohen on the abortion issue, and claims his brother-in-law has not indicated to him that he embraces the pro-life position of his GOP platform.)
After Cohen made the jump to the GOP, Polland made sure he would have little trouble in the primary with right-to-lifers. His handpicked envoy to the religious conservative wing of the party, Hutson, went to work for Cohen. Only one marginal candidate filed against the judge, and was later disqualified from the primary ballot, leaving Cohen unopposed in the Match primary.
In this case, blood is apparently thicker than Gary's political rhetoric.
While opinions vary on the merits of his frenetic activities since he won the chairmanship, one thing most everyone does agree on is that being chairman has been very, very good for Polland's law business.
His criminal lawyer credentials couldn't get him elected as a GOP nominee for even misdemeanor court judge, but it hasn't stopped him from becoming the driving force in the local judicial scene. Of course, his role in the defense bar is not one of his talking points at GOP political events, where the phrase "defense lawyer" is an epithet, not a compliment.
"I think he does it because he likes the stroke," says fellow attorney Jones. "I think he likes getting the appointments because he recognizes they're doing it because he's a player, a political guy, the chairman."
Attorney Doherty recalls both the old and the new Gary Polland. Fresh out of UT law school, Polland worked in Doherty's La Branch mansion-turned-legal-office in the late '70s and early '80s.
"This was a hotbed of liberalism -- not some stodgy insurance company defense firm," laughs the malpractice specialist, who doesn't recall Polland as a standout in the crowd. "No, he was not a Young American for Freedom-type thumper stumper. You wanted to find a conservative back then, go look for suspenders, wingtips and high-water pants at Baker Botts or Butler Binion. We put on a coat and tie only when and if necessary."
In 1998 Doherty encountered the new Gary Polland in an unexpected venue. Doherty was representing attorney Mike Sydow in a fee dispute with another lawyer. He thought it odd when the opponent hired Scott McKinley, an attorney in Polland's firm.
Doherty explains that the case law involving "an esoteric area like division of fees within a law firm" is a highly complex and specialized field of civil law. "I wouldn't go hire a criminal defense lawyer [for that]. So why did they hire him?"
Doherty says he got the drift of what was going on when Polland showed up and stayed in the courtroom schmoozing with state District Judge Mark Davidson while he and McKinley worked on discovery issues in a back room. From then on, claims Doherty, the judge's rulings all ran in Polland's direction.
"I got a lot of respect for Judge Davidson, but that's not fair," says Doherty. "It was overt and unseemly. The last guy that was more heavy-handed than Polland in bragging about his judicial influence was George Bishop, and look where he is. Uh-huh."
Bishop, a Republican Party activist and the husband of District Judge Caprice Cosper, recently went to prison on his conviction of tax fraud.
"Did he peddle influence?" asks Doherty of Polland's maneuver. "Yes, he peddles influence. Is he heavy-handed about it? Yes, he's heavy-handed about it."
"It's time to get on the goddamn record," continues Doherty, of the political games he claims get played in the county's Republican-dominated courts. "I'm tired of this shit, and if Davidson wants to ostracize me from being in his court, I'll recuse myself from going in there."
Polland counters that "I was only one of the attorneys in the case and engaged in small talk with the judge, just like many lawyers do, including Mr. Doherty."
Polland's practice spans the civil and criminal justice system, and includes a large number of appeals at public expense for convicted criminals ranging from murderers to sex offenders. They are hardly glamorous, and rarely successful.
The Press did sample reviews of ten appellate cases by Polland in the Houston-based First and 14th Courts of Appeals. Polland received from $1,750 to $2,400 each for his court appointments. He did not win a single reversal for his clients. The crimes ranged from a sexual offender violating probation to a robber who took cartons of cigarettes from a convenience store. In three cases, the court sent warnings to the attorney that he had failed to meet deadlines for filing appeals briefs. Repeatedly Polland cited his heavy legal load in requesting extensions, which the courts granted.
A typical Polland appellate case is that of Anthony DeWayne Williams, who fatally shot his sister's ex-boyfriend at point-blank range during a 1997 confrontation at a Houston apartment complex. Polland got the appointment in Judge Ted Poe's court. For $2,400, he filed an appeal arguing that the use of graphic pictures of the dead man biased the jury, and that the evidence did not prove Williams intended to kill his 19-year-old victim.
Polland also took up a claim made by Williams's trial attorney, Robert Scardino, that Poe made a grammatical error in his instructions to the jury regarding Williams's right to claim self-defense.
Polland frequently receives court appointments from Poe, and is also a close political friend, according to David Jones. "He and Poe are just tight. He takes care of Poe in a political sense, always promoting him, wanting him to run for Congress, wanting him to run for D.A. I wouldn't be surprised that Poe is responsible for Gary's appointments in some sense."
Thus, as appellate lawyer, Polland is in a position where he could embarrass the judge if a successful appeal results in the overturning of a conviction. Conflict?
"I don't know brother Polland," muses trial attorney Scardino. "But if I hired him and I was indigent and I found out he was appointed by a judge that's a Republican judge, and this guy's on the bandwagon in the last election to get him re-elected and he's there to grade the judge's papers for me on my appeal, ahhhh, I'm gonna be nervous."
Another big source of criminal appointments for Polland is state District Judge Jim Wallace, a jurist not held in high regard by Harris County conservatives, and the recent loser in a race for the state Court of Criminal Appeals. In terms of image, he's at the opposite end of the spectrum from the law-and-order Poe.
"Jesus Christ, that boy's working both sides of the yard," chuckles Scardino.
David Jones is not surprised.
"Wallace is a hack," says the attorney, who figures Wallace's appointments to Polland constitute insurance in case he runs for something else, as well as protection against detractors. "The worst judges are those with no scholarly interests and rely totally on politics to survive. He would be one of those."
Polland's biggest score to date on the civil side came with a timely appointment as a guardian ad litem in former judge William Bell's court in 1997. It came as the judge was fighting for his political life against Texas Judicial Conduct Commission charges, some of them involving the judge's efforts to recruit an ad litem in an unrelated case.
The GOP political chairman was appointed by Bell to represent plaintiff children in a massive environmental damage lawsuit pitting hundreds of complainants against Sterling Chemical.
The case turned into a gold mine, with Polland receiving more than $164,000 in fees, the largest award to an ad litem attorney in Harris County that year.
Much of it was approved by Bell in the final months before he resigned under pressure from the Judicial Commission. No one has accused Polland of not earning the money, and lawyers on both sides of the case did not contest the payments. But the timing of the award was seen by many as an attempt by a desperate judge to curry favor with a political ally.
For the year 1997, Polland received only two other ad litem appointments in civil court, totaling $6,000.
Governor George Bush appointed Jane Bland to replace Bell in November of that year. She approved several fee payments in the Sterling litigation, although she notes they were much smaller than those authorized by Bell. Bland declines to discuss Bell's authorized payments to Polland, but an associate says she was upset with their size.
"Jane soured on the guy," particularly after Polland tried to claim credit for getting her appointed by the governor, the courthouse source says. "I think she resented Polland charging so much on the Sterling Chemical stuff, but she would have had to dump him and start all over with someone else or just wrap up."
For whatever reason, Bland has not appointed Polland to any new ad litem cases in her court since taking the bench.
Paul Bettencourt says opponents have been accusing Polland of pressuring judges for appointments ever since he ran for chairman, and Bettencourt has never seen hard evidence for any such claims.
"I've not had anybody ever come to me and say, 'I've got a problem; I was leaned on [by Polland],' " says Bettencourt. "If they did, and it was substantiated, it would be a major problem, because that's one of the things I strongly oppose ."
Polland attributes his success at the county courthouse to his own legal skills, and not to his status as chairman.
Republican congressional candidate Sudan recently tapped Polland's firm in his continuing legal fight with his first wife, Maggie Mackenzie, over child support payments. Since Sudan already had a divorce heavy hitter, J.D. "Bucky" Allshouse, as his attorney, observers wondered what Polland's associate David Cook could contribute.
The judge hearing the Sudan litigation is state family court Judge Eva Guzman, a Republican recently appointed to the bench by the governor. Eight days after Cook was designated co-counsel, Guzman issued a one-paragraph summary judgment in Sudan's favor. That hardly stilled the courthouse buzz that when the going gets tough, the tough hire Chairman Gary.
On a recent morning, downtown pedestrians peered at a curious sight. A man, seemingly oblivious to the immediate street scene around him, hoofed down a sidewalk in the county's justice complex. Gary Polland wore a headset apparently attached to a cell phone, and was busily jawing into the attached microphone.
A scorching July sun had already pushed temperatures into the 90s. The day had not been made any cooler for Polland by a Houston Chronicle editorial cartoon lampooning his attempt to pressure judges in the sodomy case. He was drawn holding a hatchet and a sign reading, "rule 'rite' or else."
Hits keep mounting on Polland. So do questions as to how long he can get away wearing his dual hats, that of a conservative GOP county chair and a court-appointments hound.
A GOP judge who does not appoint Polland to cases puts it this way: "Honestly, who needs the headache? Polland is one of these people that you never want him to think you think that he is a tunnel to any favoritism. Because his mind works like that."
Certainly many marvel at the successes thus far for an unlikely conservative leader. "Atypical?" chuckles his former law partner Richard Frankoff, now president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. "I think it goes to Gary's ability to do things and get things done. Good, bad or whatever. This guy isn't there because he's part of the team; he's there because of what he's done."
Where he goes when he's done is more uncertain. Bettencourt believes that after six years, holding the county chairmanship becomes a diminishing-returns proposition for anyone.
"I expect to see Gary in the future trying to become national party chair, or running for something on the political policy side, legislature or Congress. I'll never see him doing nothing. He loves this -- it's his nature to be involved in the political process."
Polland says he has been approached to run for a number of political offices in the past several years and "will keep an open mind as to whether I will run for something else in the future."
David Jones saw that obsession when he accompanied his friend to the last Bruce Springsteen concert in Houston. During the performance, Polland sat motionless. In the short ride back from Greenway Plaza to his own car, Jones saw Polland transform into an animated Republican chair, calling a string of political cronies to run party chores. "I mean, it was just constant chatter about the political game."
The Boss, at least this overlord of the local GOP, had begun his own brassy concert, coddling and cajoling assorted troops into action. Jones worries that Polland has limited his political future by the enemies formed from this no-holds-barred approach.
"Gary can be a rhetorically reckless person sometimes, and it'll be the thing that keeps him from moving on, probably," Jones says. "He can be so strident in his public comments about the other side."
But for the moment, there's no contesting who's the Boss of the Harris County Courthouse.
"It's absolutely his day," confirms Jones, "and he's going take advantage of it and run with it as long as he can."
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