When Harris County Republican Party Chairman Gary Polland got back from the Republican National Convention late last week, he found himself included on an unexpected invitation list for a distinctly uninviting event.
In action that escaped media attention, the Texas House Committee on Judicial Affairs voted the week before in Dallas to subpoena Polland and three other party officials. It wants to question them about an aborted plan to pressure one of two GOP jurists who issued a 14th Court of Appeals opinion in June overturning the state's homosexual conduct law.
Judicial Affairs Chair Senfronia Thompson confirms the committee voted 6-1 to subpoena Polland, Harris County party treasurer Paul Simpson and the GOP chairs of two counties in the region, Janet Brannen of Trinity County and Richard Stadelmann of Washington County. They will be questioned about a draft letter sent by Polland to party chairmen in the 14th Court's district, calling on Justice John Anderson to reverse his opinion or else withdraw his re-election bid. Although the letter had been sent to the party chairs for their signature, the plan was later scuttled and no letter was mailed to Anderson. A copy was faxed anonymously to tip him off about the scheme.
The motion to subpoena was initiated by Democratic state Representative Jaime Capelo of Corpus Christi, apparently in response to a letter from 94th District Judge Jack Hunter calling for an investigation of the court of appeals matter.
The Committee on Judicial Affairs plans to hold a hearing later this month or in early September in Houston. The panel will gather facts and "if there's anything criminal, we'll stop our hearing and refer it to the district attorney's office," Thompson says. "If there's anything we need to do from a legislative point, then we would include that in our report."
According to Thompson, there was no attempt to serve Polland's subpoena in Philadelphia, where he was a delegate at the GOP National Convention. "Oh, no, that would be inappropriate," exclaims the representative. "I wouldn't do anything like that." An aide to Thompson says the subpoenas will likely be issued sometime this week.
Polland was unavailable for comment, but treasurer Simpson says he has been told a subpoena is on its way. "I don't know the details of what they did or what motivated them," comments the Houston lawyer, "but it seems like a politically inspired attack on free speech."
Will Hartnett, a Dallas Republican and vice-chair of the judicial affairs committee, was the only dissenting vote on the nine-legislator committee, with two members absent. He blasts the action as an unjustified partisan attack.
"There was no evidence of any wrongdoing presented to the committee prior to the vote," says Hartnett. "No prior notice was given to me, and especially no evidence of any wrong activity by the two people outside Harris County. This kind of action by a House committee has a chilling effect on First Amendment rights."
Hartnett contends that the subpoenaed officials were simply voicing their personal dissatisfaction with the justices' ruling.
"Certainly every citizen has the right to publicly express their unhappiness with any court ruling. The letters to the editor [columns] are full of people writing in complaining of court rulings. As long as there was no direct communication by these individuals with the justices, in my opinion there can be no wrongdoing."
Taking the opposite view is South Texas College of Law professor Neil C. McCabe. He contends that while the letters were not actually delivered to Justice Anderson, those who planned the effort may be guilty of a crime.
"The right to free speech does not include a right to engage in criminal conspiracy," opines the professor. "And the facts as reported in the media may support a charge of conspiracy to engage in obstruction or retaliation against a public official, which is a felony."
Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes believes no criminal action occurred (see "Suck-Up Time," Insider, July 20), but McCabe cautions that the matter may not have been put to rest.
"In the end, nothing may come of what one judge called an attack on the integrity and independence of the judiciary," concludes McCabe. "On the other hand, the case may not be closed just yet."
When the Committee on Judicial Affairs convenes its hearing on the matter, it might consider calling 209th District Judge Mike McSpadden as an opinion witness. In a letter to Polland last week, the jurist offered this take on the chairman's actions:
"As an attorney, I would think you would respect and honor the independence of our judiciary. Unquestionably, this is not the case as evidenced by your political threats directed at our appellate judges. You seem to have taken the 'bully pulpit' to a new low.
"Hope you understand that if you ever threaten me over a judicial ruling, you may be leaving my office head first.
"Very truly yours, Michael T. McSpadden."
Crumbs for Contributors
Shortly after discarding his Democratic Party affiliation for Republican robes, First Appeals Court Justice M.B. "Murry" Cohen summoned supporters to kick up their heels and fork over campaign cash at a State Bar of Texas fund-raiser in November. In the invite he made the following pledge:
"If unopposed, I'll return all money less expenses. This isn't conditional. It isn't an offer. If I don't have an opponent, I don't need your money in my bank. All I need is your help to keep doing the job I love."
Cohen eventually won the GOP nomination unopposed, but only after spending a prodigious amount of his contributors' cash to clear his electoral highway of a speed bump named Joe Libby. The judge's July 15 campaign report shows he paid $45,000 to the law firm of old friends Stanley Schneider and Troy McKinney to challenge Libby's candidacy. They filed a lawsuit accusing Libby of filing for office with petitions full of fraudulent voter signatures. Cohen also paid a private investigator $16,722 to look into Libby's petition effort. The challenger eventually surrendered under pressure and withdrew his candidacy.
A veteran political organizer marvels at the $45,000 legal bill. "Even if you figure that Stanley charges $300 an hour and Murry paid top dollar, that's still 130 hours of legal work, or three solid weeks of work. A lot of lawyers do that campaign stuff for free for their candidates."
Interestingly, Schneider and McKinney performed the same service for Cohen back in 1988. The judge successfully sued to have Republican opponent Jim Scott disqualified from the race because he did not have the required number of voter signatures on his petitions.
(Cohen opponents would be well advised in the future to forgo the petition route and pay an honest filing fee. And to make damn sure their law license is in order.)
After expenses, Cohen reports, he has $19,000 left in his campaign account. As of last week, none had been refunded to contributors, although the justice promises small paybacks will be in the mail soon.
"It will be at least 10 percent of the amount they gave, and close to the full amount of what's left," vows the jurist. He plans to keep a small contingency fund even though he is unopposed in the general election.
The Dirt Queen Does Philly
The Washington Post's "reliable source" was all over a convention brunch encounter last week between Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and a glamorous blond Republican donor who billed herself as "The Dirt Queen of Houston." Columnist Lloyd Grove first narrated the harmless flirtation between the married 70-year-old senator and the real estate broker, and then pulled the $10,000 GOP contributor aside to get some particulars.
According to Groves, the Dirt Queen was attending her first convention, trolling for new business and looking for an interesting man. She claimed that a fellow member of the gold-plated Senatorial Trust told her, "Don't worry, with all the folks you'll make contact with, you'll get your $10,000 back right away." The woman boasted that she specialized in doubling and tripling her clients' money.
Had Groves run a computer check on his statuesque subject in the creamy silk Armani suit, he would have discovered she was a dirt queen in more ways than just selling land. The lady was none other than Susan Menke, convicted of participating in the theft of $128,927 from Houston's Hermann Estate, which endows Hermann Hospital, back in the mid-'80s. Menke served jail time for that theft, then slowly rehabilitated herself with the help of Bush buddy and former commerce secretary Robert Mosbacher. He hired her to research land transactions for his Cinco Ranch holdings. From there she branched into Republican politics and soon found herself chatting up bigwigs at the Philly brunch -- and explaining to The Washington Post what she wants in a man.
"He's got to be a spiritual leader and he's got to be successful," she told Grove. "I'm successful, so I want someone at least as successful as I am, because I believe the man should be the leader and the woman should be submissive .I'm a born-again Christian, so he has to be a Christian man who walks the talk."
We don't know about her walk, but Susan can definitely talk the talk. And talk. And talk.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.