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Court Reporter Jailed for Botching VitaPro Trial Transcripts; Convicted Prison Chief Still Free

The latest development in the unsavory Texas VitaPro scandal is the jailing of a court reporter for botching the transcripts in the VitaPro trial.

In 1995, George W. Bush was the governor of Texas and James "Andy" Collins ran the Texas prison system which was involved in a multi-billion dollar rapid expansion. Ballooning from 35,000 to 150,000 prisoners in seven years, the prison system had been allowed special "emergency" contracting powers, sidestepping state bidding requirements. During that time, Collins used the special procedures to defraud the taxpayers out of millions of dollars. The fraud took many forms, but inevitably resulted in single-bid contracting on such items as razor wire and the inedible VitaPro meat substitute.

Shortly after he retired, amid rumors of a pending state indictment, Collins gave an interview to Texas Monthly magazine which appeared in the May 1996 issue. In the interview, Collins stated that people well above him in state government were involved in the VitaPro scam and that he would take them down with him if the State of Texas indicted him. The only person above Collins in the governmental hierarchy was the governorGeorge W. Bush. The state did not indict Collins.

In January 1998, one day before the statute of limitations was due to expire, Collins and the president of VitaPro, Canadian ex-con Yank Barry were indicted in federal court for Barry's payment of $20,000 to Collins to ensure that VitaPro received a $33.7 million contract to provide the inedible meat substitute to the Texas prison system. At those prices, Texas ended up paying more per pound for Canadian soy than it did for Texas beef. Additional charges of falsifying a social security number (to get Barry a special-access prison pass) and money laundering were filed.

The conspiracy was uncovered when Collins associate, Patrick Graham, was caught extorting $150,000 from a woman to set up the escape of her boyfriend, a Texas prisoner. The escape plot included unwitting help from Collins. During the investigation of the escape plot, the FBI discovered a business card which identified Graham as a VitaPro broker. The resulting investigation of the VitaPro contracts resulted in the charges against Collins and Barry.

Graham also involved in the failed N-Group private prison venture which led to an indictment on antitrust violations and a $70 million investor lawsuit against Graham and his brothers. One of Graham's business partnersformer Houston mayor Fred Hofheinzwas convicted of charges relating to a juvenile private prison venture in Louisiana. After retiring from his job as head of the Texas prison system, Collins had started working for that venture, which Graham had developed. Hofheinz testified before the VitaPro grand jury.

On August 20, 2001, after a two-week trial, a federal jury convicted Collins and Barry on conspiracy, bribery and money laundering charges. The trial had been started in 2000, but was suddenly delayed at the last minute when the defense "discovered" that the government's main witnessGrahamwas a "convicted" (of his part in the prison scams) felon and complained to the judge. The judge expressed shock at the use of felons to testify for the prosecution and delayed the trial until after then Texas governor George W. Bush could be made president.

After the conviction, with his clients facing up to 65 years in prison and up to $1.75 million in fines, defense attorney Bill White filed a complaint over the poor quality of the trial transcripts. Court reporter Jackie Smith apparently failed to complete the transcripts in several cases. In January 2003, a contempt hearing was held in federal court before a three-judge panel. Smith was threatened with prison if she did not complete the transcripts by February 5, 2003, with three still incomplete transcriptsincluding the VitaPro transcriptthe court ordered Smith imprisoned. On March 26, 2003, the court ordered Smith released after she turned over her computer password, a copy of her hard drive, and her backup tapes. The court also referred the matter to the U.S. attorney's office for prosecution because Smith accepted $21,800 for transcripts she failed to deliver.

After taking two years to indict, three years to come to trial, and two years to try, the VitaPro case is apparently at a standstill once again. One can only imagine how long it will take to sentence Collins and Barry. Perhaps until after the next presidential election? Then lame duck (or about to leave office) Bush can pardon Collins and Barry without any tangible political consequences.

Sources: National Law Journal; Houston Chronicle; Austin-American Statesman; Dallas Morning News; Texas Monthly; Associated Press.

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