Androvett Legal Media & Marketing's Top 10 South Texas Legal Stories of 2011
The South Texas legal landscape provided plenty of drama and intrigue in 2011, including a contentious fight over Houston red-light cameras, allegations of district attorney misconduct in Harris County, a money laundering conviction for one of Texas’ highest profile politicians, and the confirmation of a new U.S. attorney. These important legal events and others are included in Androvett Legal Media & Marketing’s list of the Top 10 South Texas Legal Stories of 2011, a compilation of the year’s top legal news. The complete list:
1. Breath-Alcohol Testing Scandal Rocks Houston Courthouse
First, questions surfaced about the reliability of breathalyzer tests obtained through the Houston Police Department’s Breath Alcohol Testing (BAT) vans. Then, in the fall of 2011, two Harris County assistant prosecutors fell under suspicion of obtaining transcripts of secret grand jury proceedings related to a potential BAT van cover-up. Now the assistant district attorneys and two grand jury court reporters are facing contempt-of-court charges.
2. Harris County Commissioner Eversole Takes Plea Deal in Bribery Case
Former Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole’s April 2011 bribery trial ended in a mistrial. Eversole then elected to forgo a second trial and pleaded guilty to a charge of making false statements to FBI agents. The charges resulted from claims that Eversole accepted money and landscaping services from Houston real estate developer Michael Surface, who allegedly sought to influence Eversole to gain county contracts.
3. Rape Case Tears at Fabric of Cleveland, Texas
Ethnic tensions tore through Cleveland, Texas, after allegations surfaced that an 11-year-old Hispanic girl was raped by 19 men and boys over four months’ time. Four individuals have pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and plan to testify against the remaining defendants in trials beginning in January. Even before the news rocked the small city, former Cleveland Mayor Stan Jones led a recall effort that unseated three black council members, spurring accusations of racism.
4. Exoneree Graves Obtains $1.45 Million Restitution for Wrongful Murder Conviction
Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed HB 417 into law in 2011, finally awarding Anthony Graves $1.45 million for 18 years of wrongful imprisonment on charges stemming from the deaths of a grandmother and five children. Graves spent 12 years on death row. The state comptroller previously refused to pay Graves because the wording on his dismissal order did not say “actual innocence,” as the previous statute required. “The very system that almost took my life for something I did not do still exists,” Graves told the Houston Chronicle. “Yet I am still hopeful.”
5. Legal Complications Foil Houston Red-Light Camera Ban
Houston voters banned red-light cameras in the city in 2010. But a federal court ruled that the referendum was not valid because it came too late to nullify the city’s contract with its camera vendor. That company, American Traffic Systems, claims the city committed a breach of contract when voters chose to suspend the use of red-light cameras before the contract’s expiration date in 2014. Now, the city is arguing that it’s not bound by the contract because it has sovereign immunity.
6. Former KBR Employee Loses Sexual Assault Case
A former contract employee suffered two defeats in her sexual assault case against former Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root. First, she unsuccessfully alleged that she was raped in her barracks shortly after arriving for work in Baghdad. Then, the court awarded KBR $145,000 in court costs for the trial, after the company requested more than $2 million in legal fees. In the fee ruling, U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison wrote that the plaintiff’s litigation against KBR didn’t amount to a frivolous lawsuit, sparing her from the $2 million legal bill.
7. ‘The Hammer’ Pounded by Money-Laundering Conviction
Former Sugar Land Congressman Tom DeLay was sentenced to three years in prison following his conviction for conspiring to launder $190,000 in corporate money. DeLay was freed the same day on an appeal bond. During his trial, DeLay said the U.S. House ethics committee once cited him for his actions involving a golfing fundraiser and using the Federal Aviation Administration to monitor a plane believed to be carrying Lone Star Democratic legislators out of state as they fled the Legislature during a 2003 redistricting battle. He characterized the criticism as “a warning ticket.”
8. VA Smacked With First-Amendment Suit on Military Service Restrictions
The long-held practice of praying to honor the dead at Houston National Cemetery came under fire after cemetery director Arleen Ocasio began enforcing a little-known policy that bans volunteer honor guards from reading recitations at funeral services unless the families ask for them. Ocasio’s action angered numerous veterans, spurring them to sue the Department of Veterans Affairs, accusing the department of censoring religious words. A federal judge approved a settlement in October 2011, and Ocasio now is transferring to a position in the National Cemeteries Administration in Washington.
9. Texas Finally Gains Obama-Chosen U.S. Attorneys
After years of delay, Congress approved the appointment of former Harris County District Attorney Ken Magidson to the long-vacant job of U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas. Magidson has an outstanding track record as a prosecutor and has demonstrated a benevolent management philosophy. It’s hoped that with Magidson now in place, the office will start tackling bigger white-collar cases. Magidson is one of four new Obama-picked U.S. attorneys to take office in Texas.
10. Feds, Houston Minorities Claim Texas Redistricting Discriminated Against Latinos, Ignored Blacks
Despite Texas’ booming population – largely fueled by growth in the state’s Hispanic community – redistricting plans by both the Texas Legislature and Harris County officials showed no gain in the number of majority Hispanic districts. Both the Obama Department of Justice and Hispanic activists in Houston have cried foul in a courtroom filing, alleging that state and local politicians failed to shape districts to reflect the new demographics. Leaders in Houston’s African-American community also have weighed in, claiming that they largely have been an afterthought in the process. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments over the constitutionality of Texas’ redistricting process.