In August 2007, Bexar County, Texas Sheriff Ralph Lopez, 71, was indicted on three felony counts involving corruption. Lopez tendered his resignation on September 1, 2007, and two days later pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor charges in a deal that spared him from going to prison on state charges. He was fined $10,000; the plea bargain also required him to cooperate with state and federal authorities.
The resignation was part of the plea, as was the District Attorney?s agreement not to prosecute Lopez?s wife, Nancy, who was under investigation for helping to launder campaign contributions. On September 4, 2007, Bexar County Commissioners accepted the sheriff?s resignation.
The charges against Lopez resulted from his accepting an all-expense-paid golf vacation in Costa Rica from Louisiana-based Premier Management Enterprises in exchange for helping Premier get the lucrative Bexar County Jail commissary contract. He failed to report the trip and $600 in unrelated campaign donations.
On September 25, 2007, Lopez?s long-time campaign manager, John Reynolds, pleaded guilty to one count of third-degree felony theft related to his diversion of $32,000 in Premier money into his own accounts. Former Premier CEO Ian Williamson testified that Reynolds had demanded ?charitable donations? and ?campaign contributions? in exchange for the company?s commissary contract.
The contributions were to be 1% of gross commissary sales and deposited in Lopez?s campaign fund. Nancy Lopez had check-writing authority for the campaign account and wrote Reynolds several large checks, effectively laundering the Premier payoffs. She was also involved with a company called System Analysts, which received thousands of dollars in consulting fees from Premier. Additionally, Premier gave Reynolds three payments totaling $22,500 that he said were for scholarship funds for the Optimists, a charitable group.
When investigators began focusing on the donations, Williamson called Reynolds and asked for receipts for the $22,500. According to court documents, ?Williamson said there was dead silence until John Reynolds stated, ?You?re killing me, you?re killing me.?? Williamson claimed that was when he realized Reynolds had diverted the ?donations? for his own use.
Reynolds also demanded a $5,014 consulting fee at one point. When Williamson wanted to make the check out for an even $5,000, Reynolds said that $5,000 ?looked too funny.? As investigators closed in on Reynolds in 2006, in an attempt to account for the funds he gave envelopes of cash to his friends, claiming they were Optimists scholarships for their children. One of the students who received the purported scholarship money said he ?didn?t know about an organization named Optimist,? and wasn?t aware ?what the word ?optimist? means.?
Reynolds agreed to plead guilty after Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed threatened to indict him as a repeat offender, using a previous conviction for filing a false furniture damage claim while he was in the military, which would boost his minimum sentence to 15 years and the maximum to life in prison. By pleading guilty, Reynolds, 70, received a ten-year sentence and a $10,000 fine. He also agreed to cooperate with federal and state investigators.
There may be a lot for Reynolds and Lopez to cooperate with prosecutors about. The picture that has emerged from the corruption charges is one of a tightly-knit group of Texas officials who met frequently for golf and engaged in similar behavior with respect to the Louisiana company. For example, John E. Curran III, a friend of Lopez who was on the jail board that voted to give Premier the commissary contract, was himself given a contract by Premier to provide temporary workers for the jail commissary.
Premier is owned by brothers Michael and Patrick LeBlanc, who also own Louisiana Corrections Systems (LCS). The two companies operate one jail in Alabama, four in Louisiana and jails or jail commissaries in five south Texas counties ? Bexar, Kleberg, Hidalgo, Brooks and Nueces.
Patrick LeBlanc, who was running for District 43 State Representative in Louisiana, claims to have little knowledge of or involvement with how the companies operate. Both LeBlancs say they run above-board businesses and were duped by Lopez, whom they trusted to be doing the right thing. Those claims ring hollow in light of repeated allegations of improper behavior from a variety of sources.
Brooks County is where Premier signed its first jail commissary contract, with Sheriff Blade Lozano, in 2000. In Kleberg County, former Sheriff Tony Gonzales signed a lucrative jail commissary deal with the company in 2004 and likely introduced Premier CEO Ian Williamson to other south Texas sheriffs. After Sheriff Gonzales lost his re-election bid, former County Judge Joe B. Garcia said Michael LeBlanc personally approached him and offered to pay off any campaign debt he might have, presumably in exchange for continued favorable consideration for his companies.
Gonzalez has since been paid by Premier for unspecified ?consulting? work.
In Nueces County, former Sheriff Larry Olivarez, another friend of Lopez, signed a jail commissary deal with Premier in 2005 just before leaving office. According to his successor, Olivarez boasted of going on the Costa Rica golf trip with Lopez. His friend, Tom Glower, brokered the sale of 56.6 acres to LCS for construction of a 880-bunk private prison.
Glower signed a $20,000 campaign ?loan? to Olivarez?s picked successor, former Chief Deputy Sheriff Jimmy Rodriguez, who won the primary but lost the election. LCS had threatened to pull out of the private jail deal if Rodriguez lost the primary; this would have would have cost the county an estimated $800,000 in incarceration fees and over $350,000 per year in tax revenues.
Part of the problem is that county sheriffs have virtually unsupervised autonomy for awarding jail contracts under current Texas law. In 2004, this led to a scandal involving the sheriffs from Dallas, Denton and Collin Counties and jail kitchen provision contracts that included alleged kickbacks. Similarly, when Texas prisons were given unfettered contract-awarding authority, they soon were facing the VitaPro Scandal ? a scam that also involved a pair of Louisiana brothers named Patrick and Michael, the Graham brothers, and their Louisiana-based company the N-Group. [See: PLN, July 2006, p.35].
Nueces County Sheriff Jim Kaelin, elected in 2006, gave Premier a 30-day notice of contract termination in January 2007, while Kleberg County Sheriff Ed Mata is considering ways to end the county?s five-year contract with the company. Both sheriffs cited poor performance by Premier. Investigations into corruption charges involving Premier and other public officials in south Texas are ongoing.
Sources: San Antonio Express-News; www.theind.com; www.2theadvocate.com; www.caller.com; KENS 5 Eyewitness News
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