The revelation that a lowly assistant in District Clerk Charles Bacarisse's office rerouted cases to courts where they might get a favorable hearing has had Harris County's civil district judges at odds. The tension finally erupted last week in a round of exclamatory judicial e-mail and a heated exchange of words during a regular meeting of the county's "big board" of district judges.
The intake clerk, a young woman whom Bacarisse has declined to identify, managed to circumvent the computerized system that results in the random assignment of newly filed lawsuits to civil district courts. She is suspected of directing at least 69 cases to particular judges' courts early last year. It is believed that many of those cases may have been rerouted to disguise a smaller number that involved bribes paid to the clerk by attorneys and sent through bicycle messengers who deliver lawsuit filings to the district clerk's office.
A general order by the district judges mandates the random assignment of cases to prevent lawyers from selecting judges they perceive as favorable to themselves or their cases.
Bacarisse says he fired the clerk in late August as assistant district attorney Chuck Knoll launched an investigation into what we'll call, for lack of a better tag, Clerkgate. The probe ended late last year with no charges brought against the clerk or any lawyers who might have been involved. Knoll told The Insider there did not appear to be any clear patterns in the clerk's assignment of the cases.
But an afternoon spent tracing the route of the cases on a list provided by Bacarisse seemed to indicate otherwise. In 12 of the 13 divorce petitions directed by the assistant clerk to Family District Judge Don Ritter, the plaintiffs were represented by either of two Nigerian-American lawyers.
Of the 35 personal injury lawsuits on Bacarisse's list, seven ended up before District Judge Kathleen Stone and 11 were directed to District Judge Carolyn Marks Johnson. One Republican judge who requested anonymity suggests the lawyers wanted their cases before Democrats Stone and Johnson because of their reputation for being more plaintiff-friendly than other judges.
The manipulation of the assignment system was discovered late last spring by Bacarisse deputy Wes McCoy, but the cases remained in the courts where they had been sent until last week. They were finally sent back through the system for random reassignment after some of the more conservative GOP jurists on the civil district bench began raising questions about the handling of the affair.
The delay in the reassignment, as well as the lack of any further punitive action against the clerk, has fueled suspicion on the part of several judges that Sharolyn Wood, the chief administrative judge for the civil courts, was trying to cover up a scandal and protect allies whose courts had received the tainted cases. Her colleagues first elected Wood to the administrative post in 1995; she narrowly won re-election this past December over fellow Republican Scott Brister. Stone and Johnson had supported Wood's bid for re-election.
A printout of e-mail from the judges' internal computer system obtained by The Insider reflects an almost comic chain of reactions by the jurists to Clerkgate. Brister got the dialogue going on February 11 by expressing outrage that "nothing has been done" to apprehend the lawyers allegedly engaged in getting their cases sent to favorable courts.
"It may be that the attorneys involved knew nothing about it, but somebody ought to at least inquire, especially if money changed hands," Brister wrote. "This kind of thing can destroy (1) the appearance of fairness in our system and (2) the reputations of the judges to and from whom cases are transferred."
Brister ended with a warning: "I intend to raise this matter at the Big Board lunch today and request the Board to refer this matter to the appropriate authorities."
Forty-two minutes later, Judge Elizabeth Ray registered her concurrence and insistence on a "full internal investigation." Only seven minutes passed before Stone weighed in with her agreement. "We need to take some action NOW," wrote Stone.
With that, the judicial chatroom really heated up. Judge Tad Halbach joined the chorus for "a full and complete investigation" and added, "I feel like this was swept under the rug!!"
At that point, Judge Don Wittig cautioned Halbach against such intemperate musings.
"Fourth hand, I understand that the district attorney has already investigated -- fully -- and filed no charges. The intake person was fired," wrote Wittig, who then advised Halbach against adopting the self-immolatory tactic of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War. "Before we pour gasoline on ourselves and turn on the blowtorch, let's let our administrative judge appoint someone or a committee, carefully and JUDICIALLY study what has been done and then take appropriate action."
Wood then entered the cyber-arena with her own warning: "I will be careful with my words because libel is involved. I am not going to use the term being used in some e-mail messages. Some very innocent attorneys could be hurt."
She went on to explain that she preferred to refer to the affair in terms other than fraud or bribery. "There were filings directed to specific courts," Wood lectured. "Those of us who have been looking very closely for the last three weeks agree on this term." Wood further insisted that "categorically, no judges were involved" in the rerouting of the cases and claimed a judge had originally asked the district attorney's office to investigate.
That statement apparently is not true. Bacarisse says he first took the matter to the D.A. and then notified Judge David West, who was then chief administrative judge for the county's entire district court system.
Wood's message put a stopper on the e-mail round table, but the dialogue reportedly continued with some intensity at the judges' board meeting later in the day. Sources say Wood grew so upset with Brister that she shouted at him. (Wood did not return a call from The Insider, and Brister refused to discuss his exchange with Wood, saying, "If I do, she'll do it again.")
The board meeting did result in a unanimous vote by the judges to request that the State Bar of Texas investigate lawyers who might have been involved in the case rigging.
Judge Doug Shaver, who succeeded West as the chief district administrator, signed the request and appended the list of cases the assistant clerk had assigned.
"We were advised that the clerk admitted to misfiling some cases for which she was paid to attempt to disguise her activities," wrote Shaver. "If true, this listing will include some attorneys innocent of wrongdoing." Shaver also suggested that assistant district attorney Knoll might assist the State Bar in any investigation.
Exactly what the Bar can investigate seems to be a point of dispute. Without doubt, the assistant clerk was very methodical in her efforts to assign cases to selected courts. Although Bacarisse says he thought the office's assignment system was tamper-proof, the woman figured out an unauthorized computer command that assigned suits to courts of her choice. Supervisors detected her freelance work because the system's internal monitors reported unusual computer activity by the clerk.
Bacarisse says he then alerted the D.A.'s office, and investigators suggested he alter the computer system to take away the particular option the woman was using.
"That way, we could find out how serious she was about jiggering with the system," explains Bacarisse.
Sure enough, the next morning the woman tried to reassign cases, found her trick no longer worked, then figured out another, albeit more blatant, method for rigging the cases. She would enter the case data up to the point where it would normally be sent for random assignment. Then she would back the case out of the system and manually type in the court assignment. After several weeks of observation to confirm her actions, Bacarisse intervened and fired the woman, and Knoll began his investigation.
Bacarisse says he notified West about the investigation and left it at that. After West left his administrative post late last year, "I think it fell through the cracks," Bacarisse says of Clerkgate.
Knoll suggests that the judges, by seeking a Bar investigation of lawyers suspected of bribery, are getting ahead of the facts as he knows them in the case.
"I'm kinda getting concerned because there seems to be a feeling out there this clerk has confessed," says Knoll. Shaver's letter calling for a probe "way expands what this woman said," the assistant D.A. adds. "This woman has not come in and said she took a bribe to do all these things. She was wishy-washy, like 'I might have accepted a lunch' and 'I didn't know who ....' "
The clerk never named names or acknowledged knowing any of the lawyers whose cases were rerouted, says Knoll.
While Bacarisse indicated the woman's boyfriend was one of the Nigerian-surnamed lawyers whose divorce cases were directed to Ritter's family court, Knoll says he doesn't know that for a fact and is skeptical of what he terms "office gossip." And he isn't impressed by the assignment of 12 cases handled by the same two lawyers to one court. "It's not much of a pattern," he insists, "and it wouldn't be enough for me to accuse that lawyer of any misconduct."
Knoll says that all he was left with at the end of his investigation was "the option of approaching the lawyers on this list and asking them if they wanted to come down and confess to us that they had paid a bribe to a clerk to have a case misfiled. And that's a fruitless exercise."
Maybe so, but it appears to be one that is now in the State Bar's court.
Hakeem Olajuwon is fast becoming the nation's premier Islamic role model, elaborating in countless media interviews on everything from his Ramadan fast to his arranged marriage to an 18-year-old recipient of a scholarship from his charitable foundation. But some of the precepts of the religion are, at least as articulated by Hakeem, more than slightly at odds with modern American feminist sensibilities.
You'd never guess that from Linda Lorelle's recent fawning tour of Olajuwon's Sugar Land-area mansion, though. The Channel 2 anchor gushed on about Hakeem's magnificent house, including those custom-designed "separate entrances for men and women" that were under construction. And then there was the fact that Hakeem's bride was so "sweet and shy" but couldn't appear on camera because, as Hakeem explained to Lorelle, a Muslim cleric had advised him that televising the sweet woman was against his religion.
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Linda passed this news on to the viewer with a sweet smile, but it turns out that she does have her own views on Olajuwon's domestic attangements.
"I think it's a totally different way of life,"Lorelle told The Insider. "It's freedom of religion and freedom of choice, but it's not something Iwould be comfortable living in."
In other words, Lorelle won't be converting any time soon.
Help The Insider expose the true face of the high and almighty by calling 624-1483 or 624-1496 (fax) or by dropping him a line by e-mail at Insider@houston-press.com.