With jail time looming and his days as a Republican kingmaker but a sweet memory, George Bishop is living a dark chapter of his life. But the well-connected attorney is not going down without a fight.
The 58-year-old Houstonian took a beating in the early rounds of his legal battle. First, a jury convicted him in November of evading more than $700,000 in income taxes. Last month, U.S. District Judge Ewing Werlein delivered the sentence: 18 months in federal prison, a term set to begin in June.
Bishop, however, insists he's still standing. His lawyers have been sniffing hungrily for grounds to dismiss the verdict, and they believe they finally may have dug up the juicy bone they were looking for. One of the jurors turns out to be a felon.
Bishop's high profile -- he is married to state District Judge Caprice Cosper and has friendships spanning decades with a host of judges, prosecutors and political heavyweights -- has made his case atypical from the start.
But even his influential friends have been unable to buffer his free fall from grace. Indeed, they have thrown a few unintended problems his way.
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When Judge Lynn Hughes repaired to his chambers late in February, a suspicious message awaited him. It seemed he had been invited to a lunch honoring Bishop, an old friend.
Hughes had his secretary call to confirm the details of the event. The lunch, it turned out, would indeed be a tribute to the convicted lawyer. The invitation had come from none other than Chris Stacy, an attorney who rents office space to Bishop and is the godfather of his youngest son. Stacy, Hughes noted, is also the husband of U.S. Magistrate Frances Stacy.
Hughes knew all he needed to know.
In most cases, such an occasion would have seemed harmless. But with Bishop's sentencing less than two weeks off, Hughes believed the gathering had implications beyond a feel-good repast.
Stacy's wife works with Werlein, the judge who would be sentencing Bishop in short order. Hughes thought that it was inappropriate for the magistrate's spouse to assemble a gathering, even among friends, for a defendant with business pending in Werlein's court.
Hughes declined the invitation. The next day he fired off a letter to Chief U.S. District Judge George Kazen in Laredo, expressing his misgivings. "The lunch itself implicates Magistrate Judge Stacy and compromises the court," he wrote.
Neither Chris nor Frances Stacy returned calls from the Houston Press. But others say that Hughes over-reacted to a low-key gathering of friends. "If my wife is a judge, does that mean I can't have lunch?" says attorney Mike Hinton. "[Judge Stacy] doesn't have any authority over the sentence."
Since a pending stint in the pen isn't exactly an occasion for popping open the Dom Perignon, the handful of friends played it casual, choosing a Rice University dining hall for their venue. Joining Stacy and Bishop were a few other lawyers, including Cornelius Calnan, Terry W. Yates and Jeff Vaughan. They pushed their trays down the line, picked out plates that caught their fancy and then retired to a table to reminisce about brighter times.
"It was just some old friends who got together. It didn't have anything to do with Judge Werlein or anyone," Bishop says. "It wasn't a formal occasion."
Judges are divided over the extent to which a spouse's actions implicate them in their official capacity. Spouses certainly must guard against the appearance of impropriety, most agree, but that line can be a difficult one to define.
Hughes acknowledges the difficulty.
"You have to be very careful about impugning acts of the spouse to a judicial officer," he says. "On the other hand, the spouses of judicial officers need to be careful when they act in the business of the court."
Hughes does not believe the lunch had any effect on Werlein, even if the 18-month sentence given to Bishop was well below the federal guidelines. "I don't think it would affect Judge Werlein if nine of us went to a luncheon for someone in a case of his," he says.
Bishop always has drawn a powerful crowd (see "Bishop's Endgame," by Steven Long, December 2, 1999). For more than 30 years, top jurists and others followed him to the South Dakota wilds to hunt pheasant. His fajita-fueled Election Night parties were a favorite among the area's political elite. During his trial, a U.S. district judge, former U.S. attorney and two federal prosecutors were on his list of character witnesses.
Werlein's court received 86 letters written by Bishop's family, friends and colleagues, which arrived in a thick binder just days before the sentencing. Among the writers portraying Bishop as a caring, honorable man were U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a friend from law school whom Bishop helped catapult into politics, and Bishop's wife, Judge Cosper.
"As I sit here," Cosper wrote to Werlein, "I am struck by the enormity of your power over my husband's life and the enormity of my power over others' lives."
Werlein said at the time of the sentencing that the overwhelming show of support had contributed to his giving Bishop a lenient term.
Bishop, however, believes any jail time is a grave injustice. He continues to maintain that his mistakes stemmed from carelessness, and not from any deliberate effort to withhold taxes. He says he paid what he owed once he knew about the problems. "I'm the only guy ever convicted in the United States who paid his taxes," he says.
His lawyers are banking on the recent discovery of the potentially ineligible juror to overturn Bishop's conviction. Last week they filed a motion for retrial alleging that the juror, Jodi Tharp, lied during the selection process by not disclosing her 1997 guilty plea to felony theft. According to the motion, a state district court sentenced her to ten years' deferred adjudication and ordered her to pay $42,250 in restitution to Texas Commerce Bank.
On her juror questionnaire and in questioning by attorneys in Bishop's trial, the 35-year-old Houston woman indicated she had never been charged in a criminal case or been a witness in a civil case. According to court documents, she and her husband also were parties in a federal bankruptcy hearing in 1998.
Prosecutor Amy Lecocq said her office would file a written response to the retrial motion this week.
"We're hopeful, but we're leaving it up to the judge," Bishop says about the prospects for retrial. His lawyers submitted a separate appeal of the verdict earlier last month.
Legal experts say the discovery of the juror's criminal record makes for a compelling argument but is a long shot to change the trial's outcome.
"You still have to prove the mistake is such that it throws the whole verdict into question," says University of Houston law professor Sandra Guerra. "It is a very difficult standard to meet."
E-mail John Suval at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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