Monday, March 19, 2012

Scandal in Lock Down Mode: Rick Perry and the Texas Youth Commission 2/3

(this series first appeared earlier this year at Politicalgates) 

by Nomad

To view  PART ONE . In the second part of this series, I will continue the story of the Texas Youth Commission scandal, how the investigation was handled (or mishandled),  and the excuses that were made .

Doing Whatever He Wanted

It took years for the Texas Youth Commission scandal to get much attention by the authorities and it took still longer to bring the accused to trial. The case had begun in February of 2005 when Texas Ranger Burzynski began looking into the allegations of sexual misconduct of juvenile inmates at a facility. The accused were the West Texas State School principal John Paul Hernandez and the West Texas State School assistant superintendent, Ray Edward Brookins

For two years, while Burzynski repeatedly tried to alert law enforcement and justice officials, all action was delayed. Clearly nobody in the governor’s administration wanted to touch the issue, especially not with Rick Perry’s 2006 re-election taking shape. Anybody could see this was dynamite and few people in the governor’s office wanted anything to do with it. Political plutonium, in other words.
An internal investigation by The Texas Youth Commission, the agency responsible for oversight of the youth incarceration facilities, was conducted. 
That report was, however, not released until after the Perry’s successful re-election on February of 2007. 

That investigation was conducted, as the introduction of the report states, “in an effort to determine how the conduct of Brookins and Hernandez went undiscovered as long as it did, given the duration of the incidents and number of youth involved.” 
The TYC’s response to the investigative report was predictable, a practice in understatement:
"There are definitely places where we had opportunities we missed," said Tim Savoy, TYC spokesman. "We regret doing that."

Ray Brookins
If the report was anything to go by, the scandal was easily preventable had it not been for a systematic failure by the authorities. 

The TYC was an agency begging for reform and proper oversight. For example, when Ray Brookins worked at San Saba School  (prior to the West Texas School ) there had been a number of complaints about his quality of work, that he spent too much time on the Internet and that graphic pornography had been found in his computer. 

Unsubstantiated rumors about unusual and suspicious contact with youth in his office also rose-even before he began working at West Texas. Despite that glaring red light, Brookins was able to apply and obtain a position as Director of Security in 2003, before being selected and transferred to West Texas. 

A few years later, when the same types of rumors began again at West Texas School, rumors about suspicious private meetings with students behind closed doors and closed blinds, reports about the unusual activity were filed but not taken seriously. 
The Administrative staff, including the Human Resources Administrator, Training Specialist and Director of Clinical Services all noticed Brookins taking youth into secluded areas to be alone with them in the evenings, weekends and holidays. Furthermore, the Assistant Principal stated that he had also noted Hernandez being alone with youths behind closed doors with lights off in May 2004. All of these people stated that they had informed Lemuel "Chip" Harrison, the superintendent of the facility of their concerns.
TYC's inspector general said Harrison received repeated reports of wrongdoing, but those reports were "not properly reported and not addressed with documented supervisory intervention by Mr. Harrison."
For this negligence, Harrison was put on probation for 90 days as a result. However, he was subsequently promoted to director of juvenile corrections for TYC. In his defense, he told reporters that he had not seen the TYC report, but, "I don't know of anybody who ever covered up anything." (The superintendent's point is that there is a difference between ignoring accountability and hiding involvement.)
Brookins indeed hadn’t tried very hard to hide things. He felt confident that he would not be challenged for his misbehavior. As one informant would later say:
“He was just like, he could do whatever he wanted,” said Anthony W. Halterman, a former correctional officer who supervised the supposed victim’s dorm. “He made it very clear.”
Ray Brookins, former assistant superintendent, and John Paul Hernandez, former principal, both resigned their jobs in 2005 in lieu of termination. At that time, no criminal charges were brought against either of them. Hernandez would later go on to become a principal for a charter school in Midland, Texas. (Laura Bush’s hometown!)

Bad Apple Excuse

And so the scandal bomb was dropped when Nate Blakeslee of The Texas Observer on February 16, 2007, reported the story. three days later, The Dallas Morning News’ Doug Swanson followed. Once the cat was out of the bag, the DMN eventually published more than seventy articles about abuse and mismanagement within the Texas Youth Commission. As one source put it:
The TYC’s culture was thoroughly corrupt: rot had spread to all thirteen of its facilities.
Alfaro had been named to the commission by then-Governor George Bush back in 1995 and was appointed chairman by Mr. Perry in 2004. When appointed to the commission, Alfaro had been a former mayor of Baytown, Texas and a retired Exxon Mobil engineer. His other qualifications included being a charter member of the Family Selection Committee for Habitat for Humanity of Baytown, serving on the board of trustees of San Jacinto Methodist Hospital and a vice chairman of Baytown-West Chambers County Economic Development Foundation. He was a past chairman of the Bay Area Rehabilitation Center Board of Directors and the Baytown Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. As far as relevant qualifications for the job, that’s about all there is.Immediately after the scandal hit the headlines, Governor Perry dismissed TYC chairman Pete C. Alfaro

Predictably, Alfaro’s own response to the investigation was the oldest denial in the book and one that crops up in practically every scandal. 
"If you get a bad apple, that bad apple, like in this West Texas case, can really mess things up," Alfaro said.
The bad apple excuse didn't hold much water with most people. Many were far more adamant that this case and these revelations were only the tip of the iceberg when it came to the problems in the agency. As one former insiders told reporters,
The TYC has established a dynasty of corruption that condones the mistreatment of youth in its care," Randal Chance, a retired inspector general for the agency, said in a story in Sunday's edition of The News. "Staff are being paid your tax money to rape your children."
Essentially, Randal Chance’s assessment, while shocking and attention-getting, is accurate. Not only that, the staff had reportedly used intimidation and physical violence to guarantee that their activities would go unreported.
Since January 2000, it turned out, juvenile inmates had filed more than 750 complaints of sexual misconduct by staff. Even that number was generally thought to under represent true extent of such abuse, because most children were too afraid to report it: TYC staff commonly had their favorite inmates beat up those who complained. And even when they did file grievances, the kids knew it was unlikely to do them much good. Reports were frequently sabotaged, evidence routinely destroyed.
Journalists investigating the TYC found that, according to corrections officers, “it was common for documentation of abuses—broken bones, black eyes, concussions—to go missing. Photographs of injuries would vanish from infirmary files. Logbook pages would disappear.” 
It seemed as if there was more than one bad apple in the TYC basket.

A Full Plate, Smoke Signals and Unconnected Dots

It didn’t take outside investigators very long to find that the problems at the West Texas School were not, by any means, isolated incidents or the misconduct of a single employee. There were plenty of ignored complaints from other TYC facilities across the state that would, should have led to a closer look. 

The investigations by both Sergeant Burzynski and the TYC became a catalyst for a complete long over-due statewide review of the Texas Youth Commission’s common methods of intimidation, sexual assault, and sanctioned oppression. A Houston Chronicle reporter put it this way:
What emerged in the scandal is a portrait of a state agency with thousands of physical and sexual abuse cases that are inadequately investigated and often are not properly referred to prosecutors. There also was inadequate oversight of the agency staff by its board, the governor and the Legislature, many of those involved now acknowledge.

"Our plate was so full that (TYC) was not raised to the level that it was a huge problem," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson. "It's probably our fault. I've got to admit a lot of guilt sometimes, saying, 'Why didn't we get involved with it more?' 
As we see, even in the recrimination storm that followed, there was still a strange lack of depth and feeling. (Would they have made the same shrugs and excuses if it had been their own sons or daughters being sexually abused?) After years of apathy, now everybody wanted to be 
seen to be doing something.

Following the explosive news stories about the West Texas case and the failings of the Texas Youth Commission, Governor Perry on March 2, 2007, appointed Jay Kimbrough, to serve as “special master” to lead an investigation of the charges. Kimbrough had been Perry’s chief of staff and homeland security director and was described as "Gov. Rick 
Perry's policy point-man for almost every crisis."

Incidentally, last year, (2011), when Kimbrough was abruptly fired as counsel and deputy chancellor for Texas A & M University (for which he was paid $300,000 annually)the long-time adviser admitted brandishing a pocket knife and telling staff he would only surrender his office keys if ‘anyone is man enough to take them.’  According to the report,
Jay Kimbrough told a school attorney at Texas A&M University to ‘bring it on’ before he was escorted off campus as he was sacked from his job as deputy chancellor. As he left the grounds he quoted an Army war hero - 'I shall return!' - before riding off on his motorcycle.
What, no pepper spray?
In any case, only after news of the West Texas School broke that did the TYC see fit to halt its policy of allowing convicted felons to work as administrators in the system. In fact, the practice had actually required that prior criminal record be destroyed for hired employees.

Faced with extreme pressure and public outrage, the entire Texas Youth Commission governing board resigned on March 17, 2007. By May, Kimbrough’s investigation led to the dismissal of 66 employees with records of felony charges or arrests, including one convicted of homicide and another who had pleaded guilty to attempted murder. 
As an article in The New York Times reports:
“The smoke signals were clearly visible; the dots should have been connected,” said Mr. Kimbrough, faulting a variety of watchdogs, from the youth commission headquarters itself to a West Texas prosecutor, the governor’s staff and legislative officials.
And yet, the evidence had been presented to people who then refused to step in and take charge. As Mother Jones reports:
The TYC's own numbers tell the tale. The commission officially reported 535 cases of abuse at its facilities in 2002, more than double the total from just four years earlier. Likewise, the number of residents diagnosed with mental illnesses skyrocketed during that same period, from 27 percent in 1995 to nearly half in 2002. And despite his office's initial denials, top Perry staffers had been formally briefed on abuses at juvenile justice facilities as early as 2005.
Unsurprisingly, Rick Perry was desperate not to discuss that finer point. He told reporters,
"I think this 'When did you know? When did you know it? Do you think someone should have done more?' is missing the point of how are we making progress to getting these kids the protections that they need."

The Governor Pleads Ignorance

In fact, it was revealed in March 2007 that the governor's office had known as early as April 2004 but had carelessly dismissed the warning by former TYC Inspector General Randal Chance (mentioned above). 
His book, Raped by the State, outlined abuse allegations in TYC -- especially at the West Texas State School. Needless to say, the reviews from the Perry offices were not good.
Chance sent an email to Perry's office complaining that TYC employees were threatening him over his self-published book.

Chance's e-mail was forwarded to TYC by Perry criminal justice advisor Janna Burleson and copied to press secretary Kathy Walt and the general counsel's office.

An e-mail from TYC Chief of Staff Joy Anderson to the governor's office said the book was an "angry, rambling, racist, sexist attack against the agency'' and "offered little detail that would enable us to investigate further.'' Burleson wrote back: "No need to respond to him (Chance).''

Even if the book was the ramblings of a disgruntled former employee, the email exchange shows neither TYC executives nor the governor's office tried to investigate whether there was any subtance to what Chance was saying.

Chance said when he did not hear back from the governor, "I assumed they did not take it seriously.''
On Apr 10th, 2007, a grand jury, having heard evidence against accused Brookins and Hernandez, indicted them both on a total of 13 counts of sex abuse charges involving six students, ages 16 to 19. As one source reported:
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott appeared in person at the grand jury proceeding. “With today’s indictments, the victims of sexual abuse at West Texas State School are a step closer to the justice they deserve,” he said, adding that his office will continue investigating possible wrongdoing at TYC facilities.
This was the very same man who had stalled and dismissed the Texas Ranger Burzynski’s original calls for an indictment some two years earlier, citing insufficient grounds.

The long and winding path of justice for the sexually abused juveniles from the West Texas School had finally begun.

In PART THREE of this investigation, I want to examine some of the underlying factors in this case, why, despite the fact that the rates for violent crime are dropping, the rates of incarceration are soaring. We shall also conclude the story with a review of Texas justice.