The enigmatic process that determines which Texas prison inmates should be set free on parole has long been prone to eruptions of scandal and corruption.
Shrouded in secrecy and buffeted by politics, the system is largely ignored by the public until it boils over and brings down a governor or spawns criminal charges.
The volcano appears to be rumbling again.
A Dallas ex-con has been sent back to prison amid allegations that he bilked inmates and their families with false promises to help prisoners win parole. In recent weeks, state investigators have expanded their probe to include two other firms suspected of using the secretive nature of the parole process to cheat clients.
As the investigations blossom, an Austin American-Statesman analysis shows that state parole officials appear to have little control over the network of attorneys — and hucksters — who ply the secret byways of the parole process trying to affect which murderers, rapists, drug dealers or embezzlers get out of jail early.
State supervision of this little-known multimillion-dollar industry rests largely on a single requirement — that attorneys hired to help inmates gain parole file regular reports showing whom they are being paid to represent. ...
An American-Statesman review of all disclosure filings in the past year shows that dozens of attorneys ignore the mandate, including many being paid by the state to represent convicts in some hearings. ...
"It's a mess," said William Habern, a veteran Huntsville parole attorney who has been complying with the law for 30 years. "If they enforced this law, there is no telling how many people they might find, how many lawyers are doing parole work and not registering, how many who aren't lawyers are doing parole work illegally and how many are charging exorbitant fees for little or nothing.
The parole system is way too opaque and Ward's story shows there's hardly any way the public can look inside the black box to see how it really works. Reforms that enhanced transparency and made the process easier and less uneven in its application seem like the right first steps - maybe even a public defender office to represent indigent parolees and a lot more public documentation about how decisions are made.
Gary Cohen, a longtime Austin parole attorney, agrees. Cohen, who discloses fees on affidavits and last year provided no fee detail on his annual report, says the fee disclosure rule is "outdated and redundant" and does little to enlighten the public.
"If the original intent of this law was to keep paroles from being sold . . . it serves no useful purpose now," said Cohen, echoing sentiments of other lawyers. "No place in state law are attorneys required to disclose specific fees like this, and even if you know what someone charges, you still can't make any judgment about whether qualified or reasonable services were provided. . . . In light of recent events, that should be the goal."