UPDATED Suspended Lawyer Craig Washington — a Bold/Weird Choice for the Sandra Bland Review Committee
We're pretty sure no one else on the committee can rock a bow-tie.
We were surprised to read this morning that former U.S. Representative Craig Washington, whose law license is suspended, is part of the committee of non-suspended attorneys making up the Waller County Sheriff's review committee in the death of Sandra Bland.
Why are we surprised? Well, for one thing, we just wondered if it really looks good to have a dude on this very important committee who opened fire on two teenagers who tried to park in a Midtown lot he owned in 2009. The teens were unharmed, and Washington received two years probation. (He claimed he feared for his life because the kids tried to run him over.)
Okay, okay — stuff happens. We get it. Sometimes there's a miscommunication and you wind up shooting at people. But then Washington sued the two illegal-parkin'-punks for $600,000 each, which would have more than covered the $600,000 the IRS claimed he owed in back taxes at the time.
All right, all right — sometimes people forget to pay taxes. And as labyrinthine as the federal tax code is, it's easy to see how a person could fall six figures behind without even realizing it. Happens to us all the time.
But then, in January 2015, the State Bar of Texas suspended Washington's law license. As we wrote then:
The case that ultimately got Washington suspended dates back to 2006. That year Michael Gobert hired Washington to represent him while he was fighting to keep his mother's house from being transferred to her live-in boyfriend in a Montgomery County court. According to court records, Gobert paid Washington $10,000 for his services. In return, Washington failed to tell Gobert about a pre-trial hearing the week before his case was set to go to court. When the case was called, neither Gobert nor Washington showed up, and Gobert's case was dismissed. (Gobert's had no luck on appeal.)
It wasn't Washington's first disciplinary action. Again, as we've previously written:
Complaints that Washington screwed over clients led to at least two other public reprimands, according to state bar records. One reprimand stems from a 2004 case in Brazoria County involving Pamela Williams, who sued a department store and the College Station Police Department after she was wrongly arrested and accused of stealing. In 2007, Washington settled the case for $8,000 dollars. When Williams wanted records and accounting from Washington to make sure he withheld the correct amount in attorney's fees (seems even Washington's client didn't trust Washington), Washington refused to turn over any records, according to court documents. Washington then failed to respond to inquiries from the state bar's Client-Attorney Assistance Program after Williams filed a complaint.
He was also accused of branching out to screw over clients in other states:
State bar records show that Washington was also reprimanded for his work in the case of a man who was ultimately convicted of shooting a cop during the chaos of post-Katrina New Orleans. Around November 2005, months after Jamil Joyner and three others were arrested and charged with attempted murder of a police officer, Joyner's mother contacted and hired Washington to represent the group, court records show.
Despite being paid $40,000 to represent the four defendants, it's unclear what actual work Washington ever did on the case. Washington wasn't licensed to practice in Louisiana, so he told Joyner's family he'd hired a New Orleans attorney as co-counsel. When Joyner was eventually called into court hearings, none of his attorneys showed, according to disciplinary records filed in court. The state bar's complaint against Washington claims that Joyner, left without Washington's help, went almost a whole year in lockup without being arraigned.
So what gives? We asked attorney Paul Looney, who picked the review committee members, why a suspended attorney was selected.
“He's not serving as an attorney, he's serving as a civil rights icon," Looney told us. "He's serving because he's been involved with civil rights fights all of his life.”
Looney added, "I know that he is an extremely intelligent man that's been fighting these battles for decades. I value his contribution to our committee very highly. It's my expectation and belief that he will bring better personal experiences to bear than anybody else that could be selected for the job. His other issues have been dealt with in the appropriate ways and have nothing to do with...his efforts as a civil rights leader.”
Looney also told us that he had tried to tap Quanell X for the committee, explaining, “Before we finalized the committee, I reached out to Quanell X three different times and was unable to achieve a return phone call….And I left a message of what it was about, and the only conclusion I could come to is that he didn't care to be involved in the review process.”
X told us that Looney told him that organizing the committee was a time-sensitive matter, and that it felt to X like Looney was acting in haste.
"I didn't want to be part of something that's being rushed together quickly," X said. "I think that he didn't spend enough time studying the individuals he tasked to sit on that panel."
The minister also added, "You don't see one activist on there. Not one. And there's some highly intelligent activists who can weigh the facts and make solid, positive recommendations. I just think that it was a rush job, and I think he said [Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith] told him that he needed him to be quick about it. Well, I don't think the Sheriff should be the one to set the timetable, because the Sheriff of Waller County, he has zero credibility with black people."
X also criticized the committee's lack of a student leader.
"Not one young person is on that committee, and it's the young people having [a] problem with the police, not the older folk," he said. (He also said that Looney called him while he was in the middle of organizing a protest outside the home of the Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who arrested Bland.)
We left a message for Washington and will update if we hear back.
Updated 2:46 pm:
We heard back from Washington, who told us his State Bar suspension and criminal charge (which was dismissed after he completed the terms under his pre-trial intervention) have no bearing on his role on the committee, which is to improve conditions at the Waller County Jail.
"I have a great deal of expertise, having been one of the original co-sponsors on the Commission on Jail Standards...when I served in the Legislature," he said. "I fought for — along with other members — getting a commission set up so we would have humane treatment of people in jail. That's what I've been called upon to review: how the Waller County Jail can be made a safe, humane, constitutional place in which to house people who unfortunately get arrested."
Washington said he's also consulted with the Harris County Attorney's Office and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia on how to ease overcrowding so "they can avoid being sued by civil rights lawyers for the conditions in the Harris County Jail."
He also stood firm on his history as a civil rights crusader: "I have been involved in the treatment of human beings for a long time — not just those in jail, but for any reason that we divide God's children...I have been the drum major on lots of issues related to housing, related to food health, related to aid to families with dependent children, related to almost any issue you can think of where people treat people in a different way."