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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Judge Sees Corruption FIght As His Legacy

Dallas County Judge Jim Foster sees corruption fight as legacy of troubled tenure
The Dallas Morning News by Kevin Krause - December 30, 2010

Dallas County Judge Jim Foster exits public life on Friday as quietly as he entered it four years ago. But he leaves behind the ongoing constable investigation he helped cultivate, which has already netted indictments and could still have far-reaching effects on Dallas County government. Foster presided over – and mostly failed to control – a Commissioners Court marked by conflict, partisan bickering and public outbursts. Supporters of the genteel Oak Cliff alarm company owner say he chose a low-key leadership style. Critics say he lacked leadership, period. Foster wants to be remembered as a crusader against Dallas County corruption that he says still lingers and mostly involves fellow Democrats. "I believe that I made a difference. Some will say that my career was short-lived simply because I stood up against corruption," Foster said. "My decisions were based on what I believed was right." He said he hopes his legacy will be reforms he championed that will add oversight to the activities of constables, who amassed sizable law enforcement fiefdoms with few checks and balances. His critics, who are mainly county Democrats, say his legacy will be a meager one. "Jim tried really hard to do what he thought was the right thing," said Darlene Ewing, the county's Democratic Party chairwoman. She called those efforts "well-intentioned but misguided." Ewing said Foster was an ineffective county judge. "He always struggled to control personality issues on the court, and I don't know that he had the steel will to do it," Ewing said. "That made the court more contentious. I don't think he ever gained the respect of the other commissioners." Unlike previous county judges, Foster, 66, was uncomfortable in the limelight and kept his appointment book light. For 2 ½ years, he largely flew under the radar. Then in 2009, when several deputy constables made allegations against their bosses in two precincts, Foster, a former deputy constable, came to life. He aggressively pushed for investigations of Constable Derick Evans and former Constable Jaime Cortes, and in the process shook up the local Democratic establishment. The party turned its back on him. A Democratic challenger was found to run against Foster, who lost handily in the March primary. It didn't help that Foster campaigned little and raised virtually no money. He enjoyed some vindication earlier this month, when Evans and Cortes, who resigned at midyear, were indicted on multiple charges related to improper campaign finance activity. Foster said more indictments will result from the constable investigation. "It's not over with. This is just the beginning," he said.

Shifting tides

Dallas County GOP Chairman Jonathan Neerman said Foster should be commended for talking about corruption within his own party. "He did it knowing it would probably lead to a primary challenge," he said. Matthew Wilson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor, said Foster will be regarded as "kind of a transitional figure" who served as Dallas County went from being mostly Republican to primarily Democratic. Foster, he said, clearly wasn't a professional politician. But ironically, that shortcoming probably helped him raise questions of corruption within his own party, Wilson said. Wilson called Foster a "victim of the shifting political tides within Dallas County" who "butted heads with the coming power structure and found himself on the outs." Foster, who grew up on a farm in unincorporated Dallas County, does not match the profile of a corruption crusader. He is quiet and reserved and speaks in a soft, often-halting voice that is at times barely audible. In 2006, when no Democrat stepped forward to challenge Margaret Keliher, the popular Republican county judge, Foster, who had never held office before, entered the race at the last moment. Keliher was the prohibitive favorite. Foster raised little money and barely campaigned. Even hard-core Democrats considered him a lamb led to slaughter. Instead, he was swept into office by the first wave of Democratic election victories in Dallas County. As Ewing put it: "Give him credit for stepping up when no one else would."

'Bambi in headlights'

At his first Commissioners Court meeting, Foster announced that he was a little green and should be forgiven if he looked like "Bambi in headlights." As time wore on, however, Foster continued to struggle with the procedural formalities of government meetings, finally resorting to a cheat sheet. Wade Emmert, who watched the court closely during his unsuccessful run for county judge this year, said Foster tended to be more of an observer than a participant. He was never able to build consensus behind the scenes. "He didn't have relationships with people or the skill set to be real effective," Emmert said. But he said no one doubted Foster's integrity and character. "He didn't play politics the Dallas County way, and that probably was his demise," Emmert said. Foster's only Democratic colleague on the court, John Wiley Price, initially took him under his wing. But Foster alienated the veteran commissioner when he voted with Republican commissioners against Price on issues affecting a large inland port development in Price's southern Dallas County district. Price unleashed his famous anger on Foster, who said he feared at one point that the commissioner was going to slug him. Later, Price resorted to mocking. He arrived at one meeting with a placard that said "Judge Foster Gump," a not-so-subtle reference to the mentally challenged movie character. But that early tussle with Price showed that Foster could not easily be intimidated. He accused Price of hurting the inland port by stalling its progress for political purposes. The Democratic Party, however, saw his stance on that issue – and on the constable inquiry later – as Foster being manipulated by Republicans who hoped to embarrass prominent Democrats. He didn't help matters by keeping local Democratic leaders at a distance and boycotting party events. Price didn't miss an opportunity to mock Foster during the court's final meeting on Dec. 14. When a staffer called the meeting to order, announcing Foster as presiding over the court, Price muttered, "For the last time," with a big grin. Later, when asked about Foster's term in office, Price paused and then laughed. "Foster is still 'Foster Gump.' It ended as it began," he said.

Term's successes

From his sparsely decorated county office, Foster said he is happy with what he accomplished during his single term. He listed several initiatives the Commissioners Court passed under his tenure, including a tax freeze for seniors. Foster also played a prominent role in the creation of a clean air task force that has cracked down on scams involving fake vehicle inspection stickers. And he led the effort to have deputy constables serve some felony warrants to help ease the sheriff's backlog. And Foster added part-time truancy court judges to help move cases more quickly. Foster said he thinks corruption allegations in county government can no longer be ignored because of the attention he helped bring to the subject. He said he will not miss politics and won't seek public office again. He looks forward to running his alarm business and staying active in civic life. The lifelong Democrat, who identifies himself as a fiscal conservative and a moderate on social issues, said he no longer has any interest in the Democratic Party. "I believe the future of politics in Texas is not with the Democratic Party," he said.

Timeline: Dallas County Judge Jim Foster

January 2007 – Foster announces during his first meeting as the new county judge that he may resemble "Bambi in headlights."

May – Foster angers Commissioner John Wiley Price by voting with Republican commissioners against a Price proposal regarding the expansion of a foreign trade zone in Price's district. The vote leads to lasting tensions between Price and Foster.

June – Foster is a no-show at a meeting where commissioners are scheduled to vote to sanction Constable Mike Dupree for misconduct. Foster's absence, which he blamed on a migraine, forces a last-minute cancellation of the meeting and prompts an angry Price to call him derelict in his duty.

December – Foster announces he wants to form an advisory board to guide the creation of the state's first countywide clean air task force.

October 2008 – Price shows up at a meeting with a nameplate that says "Judge Foster Gump" the week after Foster's vote to kill a master plan Price had wanted for an inland port in his district.

May 2009 – During a court-ordered deposition, Foster says the FBI has questioned him many times about Price. Price wanted Foster to answer questions under oath about statements the judge made accusing Price of shaking down an inland port developer.

October – Foster orders information technology staff to enter Constable Jaime Cortes' office before dawn to copy his computer hard drive without a warrant or subpoena. The move outrages Cortes and other elected officials.

December – At a meeting, Foster bangs his gavel to restore order during a noisy dispute about the constable investigation. Price pounds his fist and shouts – inches from Foster's face – "So what? Make me come to order!"

March 2010 – Foster's hopes for re-election end when he places a distant third in the Democratic primary. On election night, he blames voter fraud for his defeat and says the U.S. attorney is investigating. The U.S. attorney's office says no such investigation exists.


Something Smells said...

God Bless this judge. But he should have known ALL the powers would be out to destroy him. This country needs to wake up and smell the widespread corruption.

A Pox On Them All said...

How sad; in NY, there isn't one honest judge who'll speak out and act against judicial corruption. Is the NY Bar proud of this distinction? Look at all the corruption which the 2nd circuit covers up. Life time appointment doesn't insure independence; it allows crony butt kissing.
Diogennes, forget NY courts, the corruption has systemically metastasized into every part.

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               Video of 1st Hearing on Court 'Ethics' Corruption
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