In 22 years as a Harris County district judge, Lloyd "Ted" Poe garnered gallons of ink and miles of videotape from a fawning local media with his zany so-called shame sentences for defendants in his court. They all had a common theme: In addition to jail time and fines, the convict must own up in public to his or her misdeeds. That could be by marching outside the scene of a robbery wearing placards with hand-scrawled apologies or shoveling horse manure in an HPD stable to atone for stealing the Lone Ranger's guns.
"That's Ted Poe's claim to fame," sneered GOP political consultant Allen Blakemore back when Poe was considering running for district attorney in 2000 against Blakemore's candidate, eventual winner Chuck Rosenthal. "He makes folks wear sandwich boards and walk around the street."
Now it seems Poe may have been inspired to create his judicial trademark at least partially from his own personal experience.
The 55-year-old former prosecutor resigned his judgeship in October to run for the freshly drawn Second Congressional District, after years of toying with campaigns for higher office and then backing off at the last minute. Rumors have long circulated among GOP politicos and courthouse veterans that something in Poe's personal background was making him gun-shy of the intense media scrutiny that inevitably accompanies a high-profile campaign.
According to sources -- two of whom say they are eyewitnesses -- the skeleton in the candidate's closet may be a dramatic apology they say he delivered in the late '80s at an evening meeting at the Kingwood Church of Christ. According to some of the congregation, Poe had been threatened with expulsion by elders after they caught him having an extramarital affair with an unmarried female church member. They demanded their own version of shame sentencing: public self-flagellation in front of congregants.
Even after the alleged apology, the situation remained a volatile issue within the church, and Poe soon departed for another Church of Christ in the Humble area, where he and his wife, Carol, reside.
Candidate Poe refused to confirm or deny the account, saying as far as he's concerned his private life is not a campaign issue.
"I've never made it a policy to talk about my personal life I'll talk about anything about the campaign, being a judge, issues -- but I don't want to get into any personal issues."
Moral issues will likely have more resonance in the March 9 GOP primary, where Christian conservatives have a disproportionate influence, than in the general election next November. Poe is opposed in the race by five other Republicans, though none has the former judge's high name identification. On the Democratic side, Congressman Nick Lampson is running for the seat after redistricting rearranged his Ninth District.
A source who says he was one of Poe's fellow church members offers the following account: Some church elders visited Poe after becoming aware of Poe's relationship with the woman. They read scriptural passages on the evils of adultery, and demanded he come clean.
Elders met, the source says, "and the next Sunday at church there was an announcement: They were asking him to make a formal apology or they were going to, in essence kick him out if he didn't confess to whatever this was."
According to the source, the following Sunday evening Poe stepped forward after services and said he wanted to make an apology to his wife, God and the congregation. "He said he hadn't been the best husband he could be, and that he was going to change things." That was as specific as Poe got, says the member, who recalls that most in the congregation were well aware of the details behind the apology.
The source says Poe seemed sincere and heartfelt in his comments. Still, "Everyone thought he was a rock-solid citizen and had been a prosecutor for law and order. In finding out about this, everybody was shocked and appalled and almost not believing it was going on."
Poe and his wife left the church after the incident for another congregation, says the source. They now attend Bammel Road Church of Christ, where his wife taught at its private Christian school.
"When they left and moved to a different church, it didn't sit right with a lot of people," says the member. "Poe's wife was a very dear person. Everybody liked her and certainly thought she didn't deserve what she'd been through. Everybody was sympathetic to her."
The pulpit minister of Kingwood Church of Christ at the time was Carl Power.
He disputed the accounts of Poe's making a public apology.
"I don't have any recollection of it," Power told The Insider. "I know of no such meeting with the elders, and I'm sure I would have known."
The minister did indicate there might be alternate interpretations for the recollections of congregation members.
"Now, there may have been some agreement or something like that between somebody in back rooms, but it never occurred out in the open where I could see it," he said. "I remember along about that time that Ted responded to an invitation asking for prayers for his Christian life. But there was no apology or specific confession of any particular sins."
According to one political source, Poe over the years has weighed running for governor, Congress and district attorney. "One of his close friends said, 'You better not because this stuff will come out if you begin to run for any high office.' "
Now that he has embarked on that road, it's likely the issues he left behind at Kingwood Church of Christ will become campaign ammunition.
"Maybe he thinks Clinton got away with it, and there are still people who like him, so 'It will work for me, too,' " says a church member, who indicates the matter will not fade away anytime soon.
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"People will say anything at this time during this campaign," retorts Poe. "I'm not getting engaged in any kind of personal thing." He notes that every time elections come around, supporters urge him to run for higher office, even for mayor of Houston.
"I've always enjoyed being a judge, and now I'm ready to move on to another career," says the candidate, who points to his sterling record as a prosecutor and six terms as a district judge.
As for the probability that his personal life will be a focus of campaign opponents between now and the primary, Poe is dismissive.
"People are gonna say what they want to. Nobody knows my motives about anything except me."