A state parole commissioner in Huntsville has been taken off the job after being indicted for tampering with an official document, accused of falsifying state records to incorrectly show that inmates refused to go to their parole interviews.Freeman denies the charges and has hired Houston attorney and former state senator Craig Washington to represent her. The Texas Tribune added this additional detail:
The alleged omission by Pamela D. Freeman may have adversely affected the annual parole process for five Texas inmates, prosecutors said Friday.
Freeman was tasked with interviewing inmates who were up for release and writing "parole memorandums" to help the board make a decision.
"We've only indicted her for one count, but there are five inmates that we know of," said Stephanie Stroud, First Assistant of the Walker County District Attorney's Office. "You can see how if a person writes, 'they refused to interview' that could negatively affect how the parole board votes."
The case began last June when San Antonio lawyer Kevin Stouwie complained to state Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, and Texas Department of Criminal Justice Inspector General Bruce Toney. ...Also:
A copy of Stouwie's complaint, obtained by The Texas Tribune, stated that on April 30, at least five inmates on the Wynne Unit in Huntsville were called into an area to be interviewed by Freeman.
The inmates and other prison workers saw Freeman at the prison that day, but said she did not interview any of the five. The men's files included Freeman's remarks that they had refused to be interviewed by her. All five were denied parole.
Contacted late Friday, Stouwie said he found out about the incident from the inmates' attorneys and is considering representing them in a civil action against the parole board.
"It's not clear to me whether they are going to reconsider those cases," said Kevin Stouwie. "They may and if they do, that could have a bearing of what happens."
This investigation is not the first time attorneys have complained about Freeman's actions, according to Bill Habern, a lawyer in Huntsville who handles parole cases and who filed a grievance against her with the board a year ago.The Trib linked to a copy of the indictment.
"She's had a long and troubled history with lawyers who do parole work," he said. "Most board members I deal with, including those on the current board, seem to be sincere, dedicated people who try to do the right thing."
Freeman was charged with interviewing inmates who who had served at least 20 years of their sentences and had never been interviewed by a parole commissioner. She was one of two commissioners based in Huntsville and has been in that post since 2004.
Board chair Rissie Owens said the episode is not indicative of her department overall - and what else could she say? - but the truth is even on the best of days parole commissioners and board members devote precious little time per decision anyway before making a judgment to grant or deny release. If Freeman committed this offense, it likely wasn't from malice toward the individuals but from prioritizing bureaucratic convenience over the men whose fates she was deciding. To me, the episode is as much evidence of a broken system as one person's individual failings. They can't handle the volume and when corners are cut it's a function of being too swamped to focus more than a few minutes on the details of any given case.
MORE FALLOUT: I'm just tracking rumors, I haven't confirmed this. But after I'd first seen it mentioned by a Grits commenter, another source has declared that Romulo Chavez, a retired Houston police officer and the appointed Parole Board Member in the Huntsville Office, has tendered his resignation in lieu of being
A post on the PrisonTalk message board confirmed that Chavez is gone, elaborating that "Fred Rangel, currently a Parole Commissioner in Angleton, will be filling in at the Huntsville Panel. Board Directives have been updated to reflect he will be voting in both Huntsville and Angleton for the time being. My guess is that he will be moved to Huntsville once the position is officially vacated...Rangel owns a home in the area and bought a second home in Angleton when he was hired for that office."
This is an incredibly fluid situation, made more tenuous because it's happening less than a month before a gubernatorial election. So who knows what politics-driven decisions made in crisis-control mode might end up driving what happens in the near term?
Beyond fallout in the next few weeks, one would expect, or certainly hope, that legislative oversight would commence this fall, before the session begins, to learn the backstory behind Freeman's alleged misconduct and Chavez's untimely ouster (his term didn't end until 2019). Sen. John Whtimire and Rep. Tan Parker, chairmen of the Senate Criminal Justice and House Corrections Committees, respectively, are the two men primarily responsible for making that happen. Once they get their committees involved - and Whitmire helped initiate the complaint, so one would think he's poised to strike while the iron's hot - who knows where this rabbit hole leads?
AND MORE (Oct. 5): Parole attorney Bill Habern sent me the following discussion of the issues surrounding Freeman, Chavez and Rissie Owens via email. It was too long to include in the comments so find his full commentary below the jump.
From long-time Texas parole attorney Bill Habern:
I had no clients who were to be interviewed by Ms. Freeman, so I cannot claim to have directly been involved in this indictment. However, I do have a pile of hearsay on the issues as Freeman and I go back for some period of past events. Hearsay is about all one can count on since everything involving the parole board in this state is "privileged information", something I also have some things to say about.
Ms. Freeman has a long past as a voting panel member who, in my opinion, displays prejudice, incompetence, and is consistently unprepared to participate in hearings (called parole interviews) at the time when a prospective parolee is being considered for release. However, this problem is but one of many that need addressed by the Texas Legislature regarding the long outdated, secretive, and at time unconstitutional actions of the Texas Parole Board.
When last David O'Neil (current Chairman of the Corrections Committee of the Tx Criminal Defense Lawyers Association) and I met with Sen. Whitmire, we discussed these issues, and he acknowledged there were issues we discussed that gave him concern. However, as he pointed out, there was not a single vote on his committee by any member of the Lege who was interested in taking up these issues. Now I personally like Whitmire, and he did show a reasonable degree of concern. He just made clear he had no support within his committee to instigate any changes.
I have been appearing before the Texas Parole Board for approximately 40 years representing inmates seeking parole. I have published approximately 20 articles on the topic of our parole board, I have appeared for clients in a number of states outside of Texas before parole boards. I was chairman of the Tx Criminal Defense Lawyers Committee on Corrections for over 20 years, and have successfully sued the parole board in federal and state court at times over unconstitutional practices this agency has engaged in.
In my 40 years of dealing with Texas voting parole panel members I have never filed a grievance on a panel voter until approximately a year ago after I suffered yet another entanglement with Ms. Freeman. Before filing my grievance I sought through public media to discover if others had experienced the same type of disrespect, lack of preparedness, disinterest in hearing the evidence as I experienced from Ms. Freeman. I had many responses. My efforts were the result of prior encounters I have had with Freeman, but particularly one where she limited me (in a very complicated case) to a 15 minute phone presentation and would not even allow the mother of the client an opportunity to speak about a central topic of which the mother had professional knowledge. Many who contacted me were other lawyers, and some from members of families who had attempted to deal with Ms. Freeman without counsel. Overall the lawyers were most supportive of what I was about to do, but they did not wish to put their names on any official grievance. They were fearful of retaliation.
Frankly, my response to that fear was, "Then why in hell did you go to law school? I think lawyers have an obligation to expose wrongdoing in any state government office where wrongs are being done.". In the end we had myself, three other lawyers, and, as I recall, 4 other families who did file official grievances. (There are specific rules the board has published for filing such grievances and some lawyers told me they were just going to call Ms. Owens. I explained that would get them no where.)
I was not too concerned that we were denied parole. I was, however, very concerned that we did not get to present the meaningful evidence on which a meaningful decision could have been based as most of our information was outside the record, but mostly fully verified had I been able to call it to the attention of the lead voter on the case.
Mr. Chavez was then a new board member assigned to the same office (Huntsville) as Mr. Freeman (a commissioner). The grievances were apparently processed, and I later learned that it befell Chavez (as the unit Board member) to sanction Ms. Freeman over the grievances. Because of the stupid secrecy policies the legislature continues to afford the board, the details of any sanction were never disclosed to me, however, I tried to discover what those sanctions were. I was told that information was privileged---even if I filed the grievance. I suggest anytime the legislature creates a state agency which is cloaked in secrecy, they have created and blessed that agency with the opportunity to bathe in deceit, unethical conduct, and, at times corruption.
Recently I have been told by a reliable source that Chavez was most serious in his sanctions arising from our grievances regarding Ms. Freeman. So severe was his action that she went and complained to Chairman Owens over her being sanctioned. I am told that later Chavez was called into Owens office where Owens expressed her disapproval of his actions in the Freeman matter. From that point forward I understand their relationship did not improve.
One must remember that my grievance was not the first issue Freeman appears to have had while with the Board. She started out in the Palestine office, but was moved to the Angleton office, and I am told it was because of interpersonal issues. While at Angleton she is reported to have had on going issues with other voting panel members. In a final issue, it is reported that Freeman and one of the best and most enlightened members ever to serve on the parole board, Linda Garcia (now an Asst. D.A. in Harris County), had a disagreement with Freeman. I understand when Garcia called Chairman Owens to complain, that very afternoon, Garcia got a phone call from the Governor's office and it was Garcia that was terminated. As a result we should not be surprised at what has happened to Chavez, who all reports indicate was developing into a first class member of the Board. Freeman was then moved to the Huntsville board where upon arrival she totally stopped affording inmate families or their lawyers face to face interviews. She would limit phone interviews to 15 minutes (a totally insufficient time to present a complicated case). While she would regularly allow a family member to listen to the presentation of the lawyer, she would not allow that family member to say anything. Such a practice was extremely disrespectful to the family, and a practice I never before encountered from any other voting member in my 40 years. It also spoke badly for the P.R. between the board and the public.
It is my personal opinion that those lawyers who deal with the board on a regular basis let the matter of Freeman go too long without objection. In the last year while representing a young man from a very successful and respected East Texas family called me when they learned that Freeman was to be the lead voter on the son's case. They had her the previous year and she had been rude, and disrespectful to them. The family ask that I withdraw my request for an interview (hearing). They had experienced the abuses Freeman previously bestowed on them in a prior hearing by Freeman, and they had objected in writing to her prior disrespect. In that prior presentation for parole Ms. Freeman would not even allow the mother of the offender the opportunity to speak.
Ms. Freeman had gotten to the point where she never granted a lawyer or family a face to face interview. While the law does not require the board to afford such interviews, it is a rather common practice in every office throughout the state except the Huntsville office after the arrival of Ms. Freeman.
In the course of my involvement over the Freeman grievance and resulting in my request from my client to withdraw my requested interview with Freeman this year, I received a letter from Chairman Owens directing me to address such requests to Chavez who was in charge of overseeing the actions of other voting panel members in the Huntsville office. Looks like the authority she afforded him came with a chain around his neck so Owens could jerk it at her will. I do not think, based on my experience in this matter, that one can separate the dismissal of Chavez and the indictment of Freeman. Owens clearly appears to have acted to protect Freeman in the past, and it is my opinion that seeking Chavez's resignation is just another form of her retaliation. Again, that is my opinion.
In closing I wish to make clear that overall I have a high opinion of the current voting panel members throughout Texas, except as for Freeman. I cannot imagine any other board member or commissioner trying to pull off what Freeman is alleged to have done in her indictment. On the other hand, if I had been asked which voting panel member would engage in such activity, Freeman would have been the first and only current voting board member I would have predicted. She leaves me with the belief that as a quasi-judicial administrative parole voter, she leaves fairness at home when she goes to the office.
Most board members and commissioners are fully aware of the emotional trauma that attaches to the offender and his/her family when going through a parole consideration. Once engaged in trying to speak for an inmate at a parole interview it can be an emotional and heart wrenching experience for anyone undertaking such an event. We are better off without having to face Ms. Freeman in such a situation.