Judge calls for resignation of probation officials, From the Pages of The Houston Chronicle–
By Brian Rogers | August 27, 2012 | Updated: August 28, 2012 5:42am
Photo By Cody DutyPaul Becker, left, who resigned as director of the Harris County Probation Department, was questioned this week, along with deputy directors Ray Garcia, center, and Gilbert Garcia, about mishandling of drug tests at the agency. The investigation was launched by defense attorney Lisa Andrews.
A Houston judge on Monday called for the resignation of the head of the county probation department and his top lieutenants after listening to days of testimony about alleged incompetence and sloppy work throughout the agency.
State District Judge Denise Collins also said she had no faith in the integrity of drug tests collected by the department and barred any results from the agency in her court until further notice. Her ruling would not affect cases that have already come through her court.
The urine tests are routinely used to send probationers to jail or revoke the bail of suspects awaiting trial.
She said officials at the probation department “turned a blind eye” to due process for defendants and systemic problems in the agency.
Earlier in the day, the department’s leaders testified they did not tell judges or the Harris County District Attorney’s Office about testing problems or about false positives.
“I know I can’t rely on them,” Collins said of the urine tests.
The judge’s declaration sprang from a routine hearing that was commandeered last week by defense attorney Lisa Andrews.
During what is usually a brief hearing to revoke the probation of a client, Andrews subpoenaed the probation department’s leaders. She had spent months investigating the agency and has also subpoenaed thousands of emails and records.
Last week, Andrews put on uncontroverted evidence that the department knew about more than 30 people whose tests results were wrongly reported.
Collins on Monday said she would not revoke probation for Andrews’ client. She also said she would forward transcripts and copies of evidence from the three-day hearing to the 36 other criminal judges in Harris County and implore them to oust Paul Becker and his three top deputies, Gilbert Garcia, Ray Garcia and Kim Valentine.
Becker, the chief of the department, said he would seriously consider Collins’ call for his resignation, especially if other judges have similarly lost faith in his abilities.
“I serve at the pleasure of the judges,” Becker said after being blasted by the judge.
He said he welcomed an outside audit about procedures in testing 250,000 to 300,000 urine samples a year, but said, overall, his agency is doing a good job.
Monday’s revelations capped days of evidence about the agency’s mismanagement and overworked technicians and probation officers.
Some of the problems include mislabeling samples, data entry problems and a lack of audits or oversights to catch mistakes.
A supervisor who testified on Friday said finding 3-month-old urine samples in the back of the division’s unlocked refrigerators was not uncommon. The old samples would simply be sent out as though it had been collected that day, said the supervisor.
Andrews focused on one man, Richard Youst, 28, who lost his driver’s license and was sentenced to 30 days in jail after getting a false positive in the last month of his probation for DWI.
Youst testified that he was frustrated and pleaded guilty to the allegations and took the jail time rather than fight the probation system.
Sherman Ross, the county court-at-law judge who sentenced him, noted that Youst admitted to the allegations.
“There were a number of allegations that he pleaded ‘true’ to and I sentenced him based on his uncooperative attitude and failure to do the things I set out for him,” Ross said.
However, he said he is upset the department never told him about the false positive.
“If one of my probationers is accused of something that just didn’t happen, I need to be the person who is told,” Ross said. “I think there are some terrible gaps that need to be corrected and filled.”
However, he remains unconvinced that Becker should be fired and the department revamped.
“It’s a good organization and the director has been working very hard,” he said. “Any large organization is going to have issues and, once addressed, those issues can be corrected.”
Andrews said she found at least 32 instances of incorrect tests for a number of reasons, including clerical errors and computer problems.
None of those cases, or the problems that caused the false results were reported to the judges or anyone else, Becker testified.
In Youst’s case, Becker said the error was discovered after Youst got out of jail, so the department did not tell anyone.
“The (jail time) had been completed, and there was no way to undo what had happened,” Becker said. “We looked at it as though it was over.”
He said he did not know Youst had his driver’s license revoked and remains unable to drive.
“I don’t know everything that happened to Mr. Youst,” Becker said.
Appointed in 2006
Becker was appointed in 2006 and is supervised by a panel of Harris County crminal judges, which is headed each year by a different judge. The current chair, state District Judge Belinda Hill, sat though several hours of testimony Monday, including Becker’s, but could not be reached for comment late Monday.
The district attorney’s office released a statement last week saying prosecutors would investigate the allegations after the hearing is completed.