Governor Rick Perry's appointees to the Texas Forensic Science Commission are up in the Senate Nominations Committee tomorrow. Senators should use the forum to force Commission Chairman John Bradley to answer all the questions he's dodged in the past - especially about the ways in which he's delayed or shut down all the Commission's activities after his appointment in 2009. The other commissioners who are up IMO have done a good job; even if I haven't always agreed with them on every jot and tittle, I've never once thought they were acting in bad faith. That hasn't always been true of the chair.
There are lots of unanswered questions for the committee to ask Mr. Bradley. He only talks to friendly media and limits his comments to tightly constructed political barbs instead of honest answers to legitimate questions, so there's a lot of untrod ground to cover. The Dallas News published a list of written questions he repeatedly refused to answer, for example, on the grounds that they sounded like they came from a "New York lawyer." I supplied satirical responses on Bradley's behalf.
They could also check with members of the House Public Safety Committee, who asked Bradley to appear to answer questions but were snubbed with a no-show. There are plenty of unanswered questions out there if they start looking, and the nominations process would be a good place, finally, to get responses.
Regular readers will recall Bradley's first official act as chairman was to unilaterally shut down a long-scheduled hearing to evaluate arson science used in the Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis cases, a move which was widely interpreted as an effort by Bradley and the Governor to improperly delay an inquiry into faulty forensics used to justify putting Mr. Willingham to death until after the November 2010 elections. After Bradley made the rounds in the media calling Willingham a "guilty monster," he was scolded by other commissioners at an FSC meeting, where "six of the seven other commission members present at the meeting voiced disapproval or discomfort" with Bradley's statements. (When commissioners finally heard the expert testimony earlier this year, it was brutally damning.)
Having shut down not just commission investigations but a series of planned educational events, Bradley proceeded to railroad through a set of policies and rules at the next commission meeting, leaving all pending business off their agenda and giving commissioners only a single day after receiving a draft to vote on them. After wasting a full meeting securing votes for these policies, he pointed out that the AG advised the FSC has no rulemaking authority and that the rules and policies they'd just approved were only nonbinding guidelines that did not in any way restrain the commission. So in effect, Mr. Bradley stopped all the agency's productive activities to waste time debating and voting on policies he knew the agency had no authority to enact. In a post evaluating the Chairman's performance at that meeting, Grits accused Bradley of "Usurping power from commissioners," "Hijacking the meeting agenda," "Concealing key activities from commissioners," Wasting commissioners time," "Ignoring 'process'," and "Dissembling." I doubt any neutral observer who watched his bullying performance would disagree.
The only case the Commission has voted to accept since Mr. Bradley came onboard involved allegations against the Austin PD crime lab that several outside entities have already looked into and determined to be unfounded. I attended the screening committee meeting involving the case, where Dr. Nizam Peerwani, a medical examiner from Fort Worth who will also face the Nominating committee tomorrow, strongly argued that the case had no merit and the FSC shouldn't waste its time. But, as Grits then reported, "Bradley said the Commission needn't only be the bearer of 'bad news,' and that it would be worthwhile to 'deliver a positive message' to accredited labs that affirmed the value of their work." He also made a very legalistic argument: That the screening committee should only determine whether the elements of the complaint met the minimal threshold for consideration by the committee, but insisted they should not evaluate the merits. Peerwani's opinion that the complaint was meritless, said Bradley, was appropriate for discussion with the full board, but shouldn't be a consideration at the level of the Complaint Screening Committee (one of several committees created under the chairman's above-described policies and rules). Peerwani demurred, declaring his intention to recommend against investigating the case, and gave an "Aye" vote to allow consideration by the full Commisssion.
At the meeting where the FSC took up the case, though, Dr. Peerwani could not attend because he was required to testify in court back in Fort Worth. Bradlley promoted taking up the Austin case for the same reasons suggested at the Complaint Screening Committee, sending a positive message, etc., but did not tell his fellow commissioners about Dr. Peerwani's objections! As Grits reported, "Peerwani's rather strong objections to spending resources on the Austin case weren't voiced in absentia when it was discussed on Friday. Instead, his Aye vote at the screening committee was portrayed as an endorsement that the FSC investigate, which was the opposite of my impression from my memory and notes. Be that as it may, the case has been delegated to an investigative committee whose first meeting date has not been announced." I think the committee should ask Dr. Peerwani about his opinions on the Austin case and then compare it to the record from the January FSC meeting where Bradley laid out the Screening Committee's recommendation. (If they need it, the national Innocence Project recorded video of the meetings.). The episode was an example in microcosm of how the chairman has run the committee: Saying whatever he needs to to get his way, even to the point of transparently misrepresenting facts or the opinions of others.
Besides questioning Bradley on efforts to deflect and distract the Commissioners from productive consideration of forensics (their mission), his politicized budget and hiring decisions deserve close review. Bradley has insisted on pushing through the creation of a General Counsel position from the Commission's limited budget, despite the fact that the Attorney General was already providing those services for free. The problem: The AG was giving advice that would allow investigations to go forward that Bradley wanted to shut down. The AG lawyer advising the FSC has always said they have authority to investigate cases like Willingham, Brandon Moon, and others dating from before when accreditation was required, but Bradley has requested a formal AG opinion seeking to overrule that advice. That's the context in which I view the creation of this unneeded General Counsel slot at the FSC: The chairman seems to be shopping for a lawyer who will give him the advice he wants for political reasons instead of a legal interpretation that's correct, and if he can't get that from an AG lawyer he'll seek to replace her with an attorney who reports directly to him. Plus, the tactic has the added benefit of bleeding scarce funds available for investigations, which he clearly wants to stymie, anyway.
Otherwise, hiring an attorney as the main staffer at the FSC would be an odd choice since a lawyer gives the commission no expertise at its main task of evaluating forensics and the salary diverts money that otherwise would have been used for functions that get more directly at the Commission's core mission. The General Counsel slot was created in January using monies that remain unspent mostly because the chairman shut down all the FSC educational events and investigations during calendar year 2010. But there's no money in their budget for the position, and in fact both HB 1 and SB 1 - the House and Senate budgets - would reduce the FSC's budget by roughly the amount of the new General Counsel's salary. Leaving ideology aside, that's just poor management.
Finally, there's the chairman's assiduous penchant for secrecy, violating the open meetings act at his first meeting as chair and seeking to close FSC deliberations and records to the public at every possible turn, a tactic which was rebuffed by his fellow commissioners.
Speaking of whom, I think the other commissioners should be asked their opinion of Mr. Bradley's performance, his proposals for conducting business in secret, his insistence on revisiting past AG advice and commission decisions on jurisdiction, the propriety of conclusory statements on the Willingham case, etc.. Perhaps most importantly: Ask Bradley's fellow FSC commissioners if they should be allowed to select their own chair from among their number instead of having the Governor pick? I guarantee the FSC would run a lot less contentiously and get a lot more accomplished if the majority on the commission were allowed to select their own chair. Bradley's shenanigans have alienated just about everybody who's witnessed them.
UPDATE (2/28): The Houston Chronicle editorialized today that the Senate should reject John Bradley's nomination. They say the Williamson County DA has "obstructed real debate and instead proceeded to perpetuate the governor's political agenda. He has delayed hearings unnecessarily. He has shown disdain for members of the commission and witnesses. He has proven himself to be an enemy of science, refusing to ask that arson be subject to state-of-the-art scientific analysis." They conclude, "We believe John Bradley has shown himself unwilling to engage in true scientific inquiry. He does not merit reappointment and the Senate should reject him." The Chronicle's Peggy Fikac reports that, though he's not on the committee, state Sen. Rodney Ellis plans to participate in the questioning.
MORE: Kuff chimes in.
FROM THE HEARING (2/28): Bradley feels free to just openly insult Sen. Ellis, accusing him of a conflict of interest because he chairs the national Innocence Project. Ellis retorted that if that was the case, Bradley had a similar bias as a hyper-aggressive, know-it-all prosecutor. Bradley's comments were laced with sneers and insults aimed at Ellis about "your bias," causing Chairman Deuell to bang his gavel and insist on civility. I'm not sure he's doing his nomination chances any favors with this performance. The senate is a small club and they don't take kindly to their members being openly disrespected.
Sen. Jose Rodriguez also raised serious concerns, particularly regarding the appearance of bias from Bradley's public statements. Rodriguez also asked about whether the TFSC should hold its subcommittee meetings in public, but he appeared not to know that Bradley's fellow commissioners explicitly overruled the chairman and insisted those committee meetings be open. In December, Grits attended the very first public meeting of the Complaints Screening Committee, which under Mr. Bradley's original rules previously had been closed to the public. MORE: Sen. Ellis got Bradley to clarify that the meetings were previously closed and that the change to make them public was recent.
Here's a fun exchange:
Bradley to Sen. Ellis: "You watch my back, I'll watch yours."Public testimony was pretty darn good, including exoneree Anthony Robinson and Bill Allison from UT's innocence clinic, the latter particularly critical of JB's chairmanship on the FSC. Regrettably, though, the video kept going out during the final twenty minutes or so of the hearing (I was watching online), so it was difficult to take down details from what was said.
Ellis (to much laughter): "I'm glad I've got my bulletproof suit on."
All the other nominations on today's agenda were approved unanimously but Bradley's, and the Committee had to wait for Sen. Jane Nelson to come back to approve his, a sure sign the vote was particularly close. When Sen. Nelson returned, Bradley's nomination was approved on a 4-2 party line vote.
Video of this morning's hearing has been posted here (click on "February 28, 2011); the FSC portion began roughly fifteen minutes in.
AND MORE: See initial coverage of the hearing from the SA Express-News' Texas Politics Blog, the Austin Statesman, the Texas Observer, and the Lone Star Report. Statesman columnist Ken Herman has additional commentary and video highlights.