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Making mountain out of an e-mail

November 30, 2001

Ink may be strong stuff, but it has limits.

Exposing a problem or an injustice in the newspaper is a long way from solving it or making it right. Exposure is merely one step in what can be a long ordeal. You can't climb a mountain without taking the first step, but you may discover it is the easiest step of the entire project.

One fellow wants me to expose Harris County Family Courts: "The amount of cronyism in these courts between judges and practicing attorneys is appalling," he said in an e-mail message.

Another fellow believes that complete and accurate minutes of meetings are important in the board operations of any legitimate organization. He wants me to expose how the president of his homeowners association, with a lawyer at his side, said that "bare-bone minutes" are more effective in combatting lawsuits.

Change requires time, climb

Those two requests were gleaned from just one afternoon's e-mail crop. And, while I am interested in hearing more of what both men have to say about their suggested topics, simply exposing cronyism in the courts, or conniving in HOA board meetings, won't be nearly enough to change either practice.

Someone has to be willing to climb the mountain. Willing to study the rough steepness of it in great detail and map out the best route. Willing to pack the necessary supplies and equipment. Willing to invest the time and energy, face the hazards, weather the storms.

I met a mountain climber a few days ago. His name is Alan Bean. He traveled the considerable distance from his home in Tulia, up in the Panhandle, to attend a meeting in Winnie.

It wasn't a big meeting, just a few folks gathering to discuss over dinner what might be done about some controversial drug task force operations and criminal-justice practices in Chambers County.

Tulia, you may recall, became the nation's leading example of controversial drug task force operations in the wake of a drug sting on July 23, 1999. Some serious flaws in the 18-month investigation were exposed:

The undercover officer picked for the job had limited experience and a checkered past. In fact, while he was working the Tulia sting criminal charges were filed against him in another county where he previously worked for a brief time. Either he was hired without a thorough check into his background or task force officials chose to hire him despite his background.

No audio or video surveillance supported the offenses he logged in Tulia, and defense attorneys alleged that he faked some evidence and lied on the witness stand. Of the 43 people charged, 40 were black, and one lawyer pointed out that at the time of the arrests the cops found no drugs and none of the defendants had enough money to hire an attorney.

Some defendants, including some first-time offenders who could have been eligible for parole, were handed extremely harsh sentences -- 20 years, 30 years, 99 years ...

The FBI is doing one of its long, drawn-out investigations of Tulia and civil rights organizations have filed lawsuits.

Tackling Tulia sting full time

There was considerable national media exposure of all the problems and questions and errors of the Tulia sting, including stories in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the 20/20 TV show.

And yet all the exposure did not convince authorities to unsting all the people who got stung. Many remain in prison. Many other people continue getting similar treatment by other drug task forces and the criminal-justice system.

That undercover cop at the center of the Tulia controversy went on to work for similar operations elsewhere, including a stint with the Chambers County Narcotics Task Force.

So Alan Bean, who is a former minister, and some other concerned Tulia folks organized the Friends of Justice and now are trying to change things. He devotes full time to it. He studies other task force operations and confers with other concerned citizens and groups across the state. He talks to politicians and organizes rallies.

"The Friends of Justice now realize that freeing the victims of the Tulia sting will not be enough. America has moved from the War on Poverty to a War on the Poor (especially poor people of color)," Bean wrote in a recent e-mail.

That's quite a mountain.

By THOM MARSHALL. Copyright © 2001 Houston Chronicle


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