The Insider

Courthouse Crack-up
The State Judicial Conduct Commission's latest hearing on the behavior of a Harris County judge was temporarily suspended last week after providing fresh evidence, as if any were needed, that Texas's current method of electing judges is hardly putting the best and the brightest on the bench.

When state District Judge William "Bill" Bell, clad in an American flag tie, took the stand and calmly made blatant misstatements of fact while testifying in his own behalf, it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that patriotism is now only the next-to-last refuge of the scoundrel in Harris County. Lawyers who get really down on their luck can always run for judge.

The four-day hearing probing Bell's questionable contacts last year with lawyers outside of his court adjourned on May 23 amid some confusion. Special magistrate Brock Jones canceled scheduled closing arguments in the proceeding after a well-known Republican activist and lawyer, Holly Williamson, showed up at the hearing escorted by District Attorney Johnny Holmes. Williamson then produced a previously undisclosed tape of a conversation she had with Bell that contradicted Bell's testimony and splintered what remained of the civil district judge's credibility. The tape may also elevate the commission's civil inquiry into a criminal investigation by Holmes of possible perjury by Bell. Whether the tape is admitted into evidence in the judicial commission hearing remains to be ruled on by Jones.

The commission is evaluating 30 counts of alleged misconduct by Bell. It will weigh the evidence from the hearing and decide whether a further proceeding by a special tribunal of judges to remove Bell from his bench is warranted.

While the Bell hearing lacked the sexual overtones of last month's commission inquiry into vulgar comments by state District Judge Jim Barr to female prosecutors in his court, its classic "gotcha" ending left Bell's colleagues stunned.

"It's absolutely disgusting," says one district judge who had maintained an impartial stance through the hearing. "If it's true that he lied, it's a complete disgrace."

The same judge says that the torrent of bad press recently about Bell, Barr and other judges has noticeably lowered the morale of the local state judiciary. But he has little sympathy for the targets. "I don't think very many people feel sorry for Bell," says the judge. "If he knowingly lied, then he's got what's coming to him."

One prominent former supporter of Bell's isn't waiting for a verdict on the future of the embattled jurist, declaring, "He's got to go now." Just where that might be is unclear. Holmes refused to discuss Bell's predicament with The Insider, but even if Bell resigns and the commission closes its inquiry, Holmes will be the final arbiter of whether criminal charges are brought against the judge for perjury.

A lanky, 39-year-old former commercial litigator, the boyish-looking Bell was swept into office in the 1994 Republican landslide, beating then-Democrat Willard Tinsley to win the 281st District Court bench. In his subsequent two and a half years as a judge, Bell has experienced a string of personal and professional setbacks. Last year, he began recounting his marital problems to colleagues in embarrassing detail. Although his now ex-wife testified in his defense at the hearing, she hardly helped his cause by giving testimony that clashed with Bell's. "I know it sounds goofy," a colleague says of Bell's openness about his personal problems, "but you've been watching him for three days now. Are you surprised?"

In his defense, Bell has claimed he is the target of a conspiracy to oust him from the bench headed by fellow civil District Judge David West and including at least four prominent attorneys. But the fallout from the hearing suggests Bell's own worst enemy is himself. Had Bell owned up to the alleged improper conversations with the lawyers, he likely would have escaped with a slap on the hand from the judicial conduct commission. The potential consequences of lying while under oath are criminal penalties and the loss of his legal license.

The commission hearing on Bell offered a fascinating safari through the internecine jungle of Harris County judicial politics, where Democratic judges are so close to extinction that the GOP political animals have little to feed on but themselves.

The prime combatants are two senior carnivores on the civil district bench: current chief administrative Judge Sharolyn "Mama Bear" Wood, considered to be highly opinionated and abrasive by other judges, and the equally outspoken West, Wood's predecessor in the civil administrative post. Wood's husband, probate Judge Mike Wood, has long been the brain truster of the moderate Republican faction in Harris County, while West's ties run mostly to conservatives.

For the commission hearing, West testified that Sharolyn Wood screamed at him hysterically over the phone last year after he intervened to advise Bell to clean up his act and consider recusing himself from the Kennedy Heights case, the well-publicized toxic tort lawsuit brought by black residents of that mostly black subdivision against Chevron and other defendants. Bell did voluntarily remove himself from the case shortly after his conversation with West, citing pressure from unnamed judges to do so. During a special hearing Wood convened to consider Bell's claim of interference by fellow judges, Wood criticized West's actions as irresponsible, though she did not mention him by name. Last week, West described Wood's judicial behavior as "more egregious" than Bell's.

Though he did not testify at the Bell hearing, lurking behind the controversy at nearly every turn is embattled plaintiffs' attorney John O'Quinn, a Democrat currently under investigation by the State Bar of Texas and under indictment by the state of South Carolina for case running. In recent years, O'Quinn has taken to supporting some Republicans, including Bell and Judge John Devine, as successive GOP sweeps have eliminated most Democratic judges. O'Quinn is a financial contributor to Bell, and even referred to him at the two-day hearing conducted by Wood last year as "my judge." Several African-American residents of Kennedy Heights -- all clients of O'Quinn's firm -- attended sessions of the commission hearing in support of Bell.

The bestiary also includes GOP judicial kingmaker Frank Harmon, an attorney who directs the Citizens for a Well-Qualified Judiciary political action committee, which feeds money to a series of PACs controlled by Christian conservative nabob Steven Hotze.

Harmon is a confidant of West and several of the attorneys who testified against Bell. He formerly chaired Bell's campaign, but dropped off the team two years ago after claiming Bell lied to him and Hotze about signing a statement opposing the inclusion of abortion of the GOP party platform, one of Hotze's pet issues. Harmon was not called by the commission to testify, possibly because his web of connections might bolster Bell's claim that he is the victim of a political conspiracy.

The roots of Bell's professional troubles actually go back to late summer of 1995, when O'Quinn, representing Harris County Commissioners Court, sought a temporary restraining order against the Oilers to prevent the team from playing home games away from the Astrodome.

Civil district judges serve rotating stints on ancillary duty, where they hear incoming requests for injunctions and other special orders needing fast attention. By timing the filing of the TRO, O'Quinn apparently was able to have Bell consider the request. Bell quickly granted the order, provoking West's wrath.

According to West, Bell's granting of the TRO was a bad move. "TROs are strange things and we want to make sure not to get in the habit of granting [them]," the judge testified last week. West also indicated he thought Bell had been swayed by his connections to O'Quinn. "We all have pressure from the John O'Quinns of the courthouse," West testified. "That's why I get paid so much -- to resist that kind of pressure."

The next chapter in the Bell saga unfolded in an unlikely place, a GOP judicial soiree called "the Game Bird Dinner" in January of last year. There, Bell approached Holly Williamson and asked her whether she would be interested in taking a guardian ad litem assignment to represent the interests of children in the Kennedy Heights case. But Williamson, when she learned that Chevron was a defendant, explained that she represented the company on employment matters and would face a conflict of interest if she took the proffered appointment from Bell. Bell, she testified during last week's hearing, then asked her to send a message to Chevron that their lead attorney, Bobby Meadows, was a liar and no match for the team of lawyers assembled by O'Quinn.

(During his later testimony, Bell denied he said anything of the sort and professed admiration for Meadows's legal abilities.)

Williamson testified that she contacted Chevron as Bell had directed and passed on the judge's message. That triggered a flurry of phone calls between flustered Chevron lawyers, Bell and others. Williamson then consulted with Harmon, who brought the matter to West's attention. After Bell had several conversations with Chevron attorneys --the substance of which were disputed in hearing testimony -- West got into the act, meeting with Bell to raise his concerns about the judge's behavior. West claimed that Bell told him he would recuse himself from Kennedy Heights because he had recommended that his father-in-law hire O'Quinn in an unrelated oil and gas matter. West testified that when Bell told him he was hiring O'Quinn, West exclaimed, "The devil! That sounds really bad."

Following that conversation with West, both Bell and O'Quinn denied there had ever been an arrangement to hire O'Quinn to represent Bell's now former father-in-law.

In a second meeting with Bell at West's office that included Judge Don Wittig, West taped his heated conversation with Bell about his out-of-court contacts with the lawyers. "This job is hard enough without people doing things like this," West upbraided Bell. "You've got to join the corps of judges, stop talking to lawyers and start acting like a judge."

Bell testified last week that West had turned the tape recorder on and off, eliminating segments of the conversation that did not support his version of the talk. During a portion that was not recorded, Bell claimed, West had vowed to get him off the bench. Curiously, Wittig, who was present at the meeting, was not called as a witness by the judicial commission to settle the conflicting testimony.

After Bell recused himself from the Kennedy Heights case, it was transferred to Judge Tony Lindsay. The litigation was later moved from state to federal court, where it currently awaits trial before U.S. District Judge Ken Hoyt.

In his testimony last week, Bell consistently denied the various accounts of his allegedly improper conversations with Williamson, Meadows and Meadows's partner Allan Port, and Vinson & Elkins attorney Margaret Wilson. After the first three days of the hearing, Bell's word was pitted against that of the four attorneys and a district judge, and the tape West had made of his office confrontation with Bell.

But then it got much worse for Bell.
When Williamson walked into court on the fourth day of the hearing, accompanied by Holmes and armed with her tape recording, Bell's long face froze. In her testimony three days earlier, Williamson had recounted a phone conversation with Bell in which he described himself as "a friend" of Chevron and asked for guidance from someone "with cojones" at the company to tell him what to do, Bell had flatly denied making those statements. In fact, Bell claimed he had actually instructed Williamson to "have the balls" to tell Chevron she had misunderstood his initial conversation at the dinner.

The recording revealed that Williamson's account of the conversation was accurate. "I'd like to know from somebody what they want me to do," Bell told Williamson on the tape. "Somebody with cojones big enough to tell me what they want me to do. Because, right now ... I feel like I'm bending over backwards to try to help Chevron, I really do. 'Cause I want them to get a fair case."

Williamson produced the tape after the commission rested its case against Bell without calling Harmon as a corroborating witness for her testimony -- a move that left Williamson believing she was being tarred as one of a number of liars. So Williamson contacted commission executive director Bob Flowers, revealed the existence of the tape and met with Holmes the next morning.

"When I heard that he had testified in a manner wholly inconsistent with his conversation with me, I felt like I had an ethical obligation to inform the commission of the tape," says Williamson.

Of Bell's allegation that she is part of a conspiracy to get him, Williamson says, "If it weren't so serious, it would be laughable." Until she was directed by Bell to deliver a message to Chevron, Williamson says, she did not know the company's lawyers, and she says she knew West only in passing.

Bell's attorney, Ed Murphy, said he's confident that the tape proves no more than that his client and Williamson have differing recollections of their talk.

Williamson isn't the only attorney who took issue with Bell's truthfulness. A series of contacts and conversations between the judge and Vinson & Elkins's Wilson makes up the second series of ethical violations alleged against Bell by the judicial commission.

Bell's conversations with Wilson came several months after the Williamson incident and his recusal from the Kennedy Heights case. Wilson represented Catholic church officials in a suit filed by several young men alleging sexual misconduct by a priest in Corpus Christi and was seeking transfer of the case from Bell's court back to Corpus. Wilson testified last week that Bell called her in March of last year to discuss his problems with the Kennedy Heights case. Near the end of the conversation, Wilson said, she asked Bell whether he was going to rule on the change of venue for her clients, and he replied that she should tell them "they had nothing to worry about."

"It was obviously improper," Wilson said. "He was telling me how he was going to rule without the other party in the case being on the line." In the following month, Wilson testified, Bell called her repeatedly to offer her court assignments and then invited her to lunch several times. Wilson said she declined all the offers, telling Bell she didn't think the contacts were a good idea.

When Bell finally ruled on the transfer motion, he granted it to all the defendants except Wilson's clients, leaving her puzzled. Wilson testified that Bell approached her at a June birthday party last year at Judge Elizabeth Ray's house and told her he had not ruled on her motion so she could "bust" the judge on appeal.

That comment "clearly didn't make sense," Wilson said. "It meant to me that somehow he had ruled wrong on purpose to do me a favor."

Even more bizarre was Bell's claim that he recused himself from Wilson's case because she had mentioned to him that a Catholic cleric was fasting until the case was transferred.

"I had a mental picture of a priest fasting in prayer -- a little guy fasting in the sunlight coming up through a stained glass window," Bell testified. "It was a thing in my head." Wilson's transfer motion was later granted by the judge who took over consideration of the litigation from Bell.

In a replay of the Williamson episode, Bell claimed in court that Wilson had simply misunderstood him and he had never told her he would rule for her clients or that he had deliberately misruled to allow her to "bust" him on appeal. The cumulative import of Bell's testimony would seem to be that he is a most misunderstood man.

As a result of his experiences, Bell testified, he has stopped going to social functions with other judges and has become almost a hermit.

"I suppose when you're burned, you have to be very careful of fire," he allowed.

If Bell thought the outcome of his party chat with Williamson was a burn, he may just find that his testimony last week was total self-immolation.


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