For years Quanell X, a Houston civil rights activist, has appeared before banks of cameras and lights, addressing crowds with his sonorous voice about a crime or a miscarriage of justice that he was working to prevent.
But last week in Beaumont, a small cluster of people gathered outside the new section of the Jefferson County Courthouse and Quanell was nowhere to be seen. People who say they hired him for his ability to draw attention to a case, to shape a narrative in the media, told reporters — who, along with photographers, outnumbered about a dozen people who'd come there to speak — they felt they'd been ripped off by Quanell, who, they say, made promises he never delivered on.
Leslie Bradley held up a homemade poster declaring Quanell should be treated like Bernie Madoff, the infamous Ponzi schemer. She handed out flyers featuring her text message conversations with Quanell and also described him as a serpent that needs to be dealt with. A bright, hard smile crossed her face as she shuffled through stacks of papers with reporters and passed out T-shirts she had made.
Bradley hired Quanell X earlier this year when her husband, serving time in prison for aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping, was about to have his DNA tested – she insists Charlie Bradley is innocent because the description given by the victim, a Houston Walgreens pharmaceutical deliveryman, of the men who stole his truck and trailer and about $1 million worth of prescription drugs, was of a tall, slender man. (Court records say the description was vague.) Her husband is 5'4" and weighs more than 200 pounds.
Court records show his DNA did not match DNA swabs from the stolen vehicle, but Bradley's fingerprints were a match for fingerprints found on the trailer. His case is currently awaiting a hearing before the Third Court of Criminal Appeals.
Charlie Bradley told his wife to hire Quanell X as they moved toward his appeal date, convinced Quanell would get him attention for his case. Bradley did, but failed to follow through, she says. Quanell went silent and failed to return text messages and a phone call, she says.
However, Quanell says Charlie Bradley is someone he's known for years, but he refused to keep representing him when he learned police matched Bradley's fingerprints.
“You can't come to us thinking because you retained my services that if we find you've not told me the total truth, if we find you're lying to us, that you can still retain us,” Quanell tells the Houston Press. “When I was younger I would have carried what they brought me. When I was younger I would have taken their story, but I've learned the hard way to investigate, to look into everything.”
Standing in the sun in front of the courthouse, Veronica Cooper held a stack of papers in front of her school district T-shirt so it wouldn't appear in photos. As she stepped forward to speak, she seemed to tower over the audience. Cooper hired Quanell to represent her when she was having problems at the Goose Creek ISD, where she'd been a physical education teacher and coach since 2007, according to court records. She maintains the district discriminated against her and unfairly fired her. (The school said she was too hard on the students, according to court documents. She's appealing the most recent decision against her.) She paid Quanell $1,200.
“He was supposed to represent me and speak on my behalf, and said he'd set up a meeting with the superintendent and get this whole situation worked out, but it never happened. I met him once to give him my check, and that was it. I called and called, and finally he told me there was no way I was going to get my job back.”
Cooper had seen him on TV for years. “He represents himself as a crusader of the minorities, and a defender of what is right and just, but I found out it has nothing to do with that, what he actually does.”
Mary Wiltz, a birdlike woman who wore a hot pink T-shirt and whose thin body vibrated like a guitar string as she spoke, talked about how she hired Quanell earlier this year when she was embroiled in a custody battle over her grandson. (The boy's foster family had taken her to court to get him back, Wiltz says.) Quanell agreed to help with her case, she explains (she has a contract and receipts to back her up) in exchange for $7,500.
When the time came for her court date in Lake Charles, Louisiana, she says, Quanell showed up with only one guy, not the impressive entourage he usually rolls with. “He made me think he could command the media, that they would show up when he said, but that didn't happen,” Wiltz says. “I trusted him. He showed up twice. I believe he cost me my grandson.”
Ricky Jason, a professional activist himself for the past 30 years in Beaumont, stood at the center of the group for most of the press conference. Dressed in a dark suit, he stepped in whenever anyone seemed to falter with the media. Jason says activism can be a profession today, that having someone to represent you or your family can be helpful when you're embroiled in a difficult situation with a legal issue or a civil rights infringement. “You've got to have someone to represent you with the media, with the public. If you're innocent, you've got to have someone out there speaking for you and making people pay attention, the politicians and everyone.”
But he maintains Quanell charges too much and makes promises to do things that are beyond his control. “Quanell and I do the same kind of work with this, but I don't charge people thousands of dollars to do it, and I don't promise what I can't deliver. He does.”
Quanell says Jason is the real motor behind the Beaumont news conference and that Jason is actually upset because Quanell has publicly urged the African-American community to be more discerning and not vote a straight ticket for a single political party (African Americans traditionally vote Democrat) and because Quanell has said people can play a part in police shootings when they don't comply with instructions from police.
Harold Roberts contacted Quanell when his friend, Calvin Walker – an electrician contractor accused of overcharging Beaumont ISD who ultimately agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor failure to pay his taxes after his federal court case ended in mistrial – first got into trouble.
In 2012, Roberts called Quanell, and he and Jason, a longtime friend, met Quanell at a diner in Baytown to retain his services to help Walker in exchange for a $3,500 check. When they got there, Quanell was already seated with a bevy of bodyguards or an entourage around him. Robert said he gave Quanell the check but never heard from the activist again. "He took the money, but he didn't get anything done."
Quanell has a different take. He wouldn't talk about specific cases, but when the Houston Press spoke with him, he pointed out that despite his reputation as something of a media miracle worker, he is clear with people he works with about what securing his services does — and does not — provide.
His contract outlines he is not a lawyer and he and his team cannot give legal advice, though they can connect a client with a lawyer if one is needed.
While he once was more trusting, Quanell says that over the years so many people — including a 15-year-old girl, a longtime family friend and a pastor's wife — have lied to him that he became cautious about who he represents. And people who are rejected resent that, he explains.
The news conference in Beaumont was organized by Bradley, Roberts and Jason. They've also created a Go Fund Me account to collect the $50,000 they say Quanell has received from all of them. They say they plan on using that money to hire a lawyer to file a class action against him. “He needs to be accountable," Roberts says. "He's been in it for a long time. He would stand out on the front lines when a whole lot of people were afraid to. He's spoken up a lot for a lot of people for years. He uses that now.”
Even though Quanell is transparent about his expectations for clients — the contract includes clauses stipulating all expenses be covered and requiring people to keep the agreement itself private — people don't always understand what he can and can't do, Jason says.
“He gives you hope if you've got a loved one, a mom in prison for the next 80 years and he's this guy on TV speaking on your behalf and people believe in him," Jason says. "Some of these people have fifth-grade educations, they don't know how this all works, and he gives them hope that things will get better and change. When he was doing this 20 years ago, he was there standing on the front lines and fighting for people and he did some good work. But since then, he's just gotten greedy.”
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And when it comes to the money people pay just to become his client, Quanell isn't shy about the fact the money is indeed nonrefundable, as is stated in the standard contract he issues when taking on a client. The retainer fees cover the work he and his team do interviewing, running background checks and using an array of other tools to figure out if a client is being honest.
“We never refund anybody, because why should we do a refund when we've done the work? Take every one of those cases up there in Beaumont. If I had jumped on TV and said that white folks were being prejudiced and then it turned out not to be true, people would stop listening to me," Quanell says. "I'm hurting my community if I play the race card and it's not true, if it ends up not really being about that. Whether you retain me or not, I'm not going to lie for you.”
The news conference ended in a vague way, with reporters and cameramen drifting away from the site while the people who'd come to make their issues with Quanell public stood around waiting to see if this or that last journalist wanted to speak. "Am I allowed to talk to this lady?" one woman asked, looking to Jason.
He nodded and she started relaying her story, holding up copies of a check and a contract. Even with the contract with Quanell, she insists she was promised more than she got for her money. It's the same story they all tell.