> The QueQue
Fitz resigns, the Lightning roars
From: Fitzgerald, Bill
Sent: Monday, August 17, 2009 5:10 PM
To: All Adult Probation
I am respectfully informing you of my decision to resign effective January 4, 2010.? My tenure here has been a wonderful experience and I truly appreciate all of your efforts to move this department forward.
Were the QueQue inhabiting a black robe on the District Court — oh, the things we would do! But when we were all done frocking and unfrocking for sheer novelty and got down to business, we suspect we would find ourselves unfavorably disposed toward any employee who convinced us not to conduct an overdue performance review with news of an imminent departure.
We’re speaking of course of our fine foil, Mr. Bill Fitzgerald.
A few days after Bexar County’s misdemeanor judges voted August 11 not to retain probation department chief Fitzgerald, 379th District Judge Ron Rangel had a similar “performance review” scheduled (pushed back from the previous week) on the felony court side. However, at the last minute it was pulled from the agenda due to Fitzgerald’s announced retirement.
Did the judges know the retirement was still nearly five months away? While we couldn’t reach Rangel by deadline Tuesday, we’re betting not.
“I don’t think any of the district judges, when he told them he was going to resign, I don’t think they thought it was going to be next year,” said David Van Os, a San Antonio attorney with multiple federal lawsuits pending against Fitzgerald and his probation co-pilot Kathy Cline.
Van Os told QueQue he expected to file a new federal lawsuit on behalf of five probationers Tuesday, probationers he says were wrongfully imprisoned based on false positive drug tests. It’s a topic the Current has written about repeatedly [See “Test Tube Maybes,” October 1, 2008 or “Urine Trouble,” July 29, 2009, or anything in between], providing detailed analysis from an outside lab confirming the unreliability of data provided by Victoria-based contractor Treatment Associates.
For some reason, in its selective reporting on the topic, the Express-Newshas staunchly refused to dig into the issue of false positives and the incarceration of potential innocents. No mention of union-busting allegations brought by probation’s former IT director. Nothing on the allegations of sexual harassment by Fitz.
So we don’t expect to see a blazing E-N editorial when Fitzgerald and Cline’s names are appended to the list of defendants on a pending federal suit against Treatment Associates that alleges pregnant probationer Shannon McGillis was imprisoned for six weeks based on faulty drug tests, only to be released one day before she gave birth.
But we should.
The system itself takes the stand this week in two notable San Antonio trials, one met with protesters, the other fueled in part by official protestations of innocence. We’re talking, of course, about the Keller case and the stolen Southwest Airlines tickets scandal.
Criminal Court of Appeals Judge Sharon Keller’s disciplinary hearing is drawing nationwide media attention in no small part because she inadvertently reminded us all that the death-penalty machine is subject to grave human error. On September 25, 2007, she declined to keep the court open past 5 p.m. for a last-minute stay-of-execution request for Michael Richard, who was sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of Marguerite Dixon. Richard was put to death that evening.
Death-penalty activists who spearheaded the formal complaint against Keller argue that she violated the Court’s unwritten protocol, which required her to refer the attorneys to the duty judge assigned to the case, Justice Cheryl Johnson, who unbeknownst to the defense was waiting at the courthouse, expecting an appeal from Richard. Following this week’s hearing, presiding District Court Judge David Berchelmann will send his findings up to the Commission on Judicial Conduct, which can vote to remove Keller — a decision that would have to be confirmed by a review panel and could still be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court. You can find a thorough Q&A about the case on the Austin American-
Statesman’s website, http://tinyurl.com/qk8va4, and you can watch a video of the opening-day protests at sacurrent.com.
The Keller hearing hoopla almost overshadowed the start on Tuesday of another fascinating trial: that of five middle(wo)men who sold some of the more than 5,000 Southwest Airlines “green pass” tickets Althea Jackson stole from work between 2002 and 2005. One of those defendants is Mark Gudanowski, former muscle and driver for our own Bexar County DA, Susan Reed. Althea hubby James Jackson worked as a bailiff at the County Courthouse, and Reed wasn’t the only public servant who was a third-hand beneficiary of Althea’s score. Naturally, many San Antonians wonder why the buck should stop at the secondhand salespeople: the tickets, after all, were prominently marked “Not For Resale.” Wouldn’t that tickle a prosecutor’s Spidey Sense?
Thinking of penning your nemesis’s epitaph? You may wish to consult with R.G. Griffing, editor-in-chief at sanantoniolightning.com, and a truly gifted writer of rapier headlines. But as those headlines are sometimes the story itself, it was only a matter of time before someone hired a lawyer. Ironically, the stories in question constitute some of the Lightning’s meatier prose.
Earlier this month, Carol Asvestas, executive director of the Wild Animal Orphanage in Bexar County, decided she’d had enough of being called “The Lyin’ Queen,” and accused of running an “animal Auschwitz.” In the complaint, Asvestas alleges that Griffing’s negative reporting on her wildlife refuge has caused a drop in donations to the 26-year-old nonprofit, which, according to its website and guidestar.org, houses 500 or so animals (including 300 primates) on a 10-acre ranch near Helotes, and another 120-acre property in northwest Bexar County.
As early as October 2007, Griffing questioned the fate of animals at WAO — including as many as 100 pit bulls that may have been euthanized at the refuge and a large pack of unaccounted-for potbellied pigs — and began to relay dark and worrisome anonymous whistleblower tales. Earlier this year, Griffing wrote that federal authorities were investigating the refuge, and that there were reports of mass graves on its property.
Griffing says simply, “We stand behind our story.”
In mid-July, the Lightning broke the news that a young white Bengal tiger named Vi Vi, who was donated to WAO this spring, had died. In subsequent stories he reported that as many as eight cougarsand a lion-tiger mix had also died this year, and put the total number of confirmed animal deaths at WAO at 13 in the past 12 months.
Asvestas declined to speak with the Lightning, but Griffing reported that he obtained independent confirmation of Vi Vi’s death from the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory. At some point last month, Asvestas posted a note on the WAO website, dated simply July 2009, acknowledging Vi Vi’s passing. “She died of pre-existing medical problems from poor nutrition when she was being cared for by her former owner,” she wrote. “The damage sustained when she was very young could not have been undone. She did not suffer. She passed quickly.” In the same note, Asvestas promised to post a “complete veterinarian report on ‘Vi Vi’ within the next week.”
The autopsy results, not yet posted, would help to answer some questions, including why a March 3, 2009, Associated Press story reported that veterinarian Loretta Ehrlund “says Vivi [sic] appears to be in good health.”
Asvestas declined to discuss her lawsuit with the Current, but said that she will hold a press conference at WAO’s Leslie Road facility Thursday, where we would receive a packet with the autopsy reports for Vi Vi and the cougars. Veterinarian Ehrlund will be present, she says.
How many cougars have died this year, we asked?
“Offhand,” she said, “I don’t know.”
How do rumors get started? Well, sometimes, to our chagrin, the QueQue starts them. Last week a reliable Eastside chismoso told us that newly appointed County Court-at-Law Judge Linda Penn might be supporting former District 2 City Councilwoman Sheila McNeil for the Justice of the Peace bench she’ll be vacating. Not so, says Judge Penn, and a good thing, because the suggestion elicited a singular comment from District 4 County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson: “Mega-dumb.” Yikes. Good thing it’s not true.
Everyone knows McNeil, who made an unsuccessful run for mayor this year, is interested in pursuing his seat, Adkisson reminded us, and we were left with the distinct impression that giving her a leg up in the County government is not the way to get or stay in his good graces.
As the Current noticed a few years back, one effect of our recently extended City Council term limits is that every four years they produced a crop of young, sometimes talented politicos with nowhere to go. The last of the four-year-max crop will roll out of City Hall in 2011, but this past year left not only McNeil, but former District 6 Councilwoman Delicia Herrera with unexhausted ambition. Herrera expects to file for the County District 2 seat held since 1983 (which is to say the better part of Herrera’s life) by former State Rep and U.S. Marine Corp vet Paul Elizondo. Is Elizondo nervous? Maybe he should be; Herrera surprised plenty of experienced pols when she soundly beat Ray Lopez in the 2005 runoff.