Lost in Translation

Dallas judges say unqualified Spanish translators are hindering the course of justice, but county commissioners are hearing another story altogether

Commissioner John Wiley Price was the first to interrupt. "I just want to make sure that this particular vendor has an opportunity to [see the evaluations]," Price said. He was also curious about whether McDaniel had personally given Galindo notice of the complaints.

Commissioner Ken Mayfield was the next to jump in. "I think the other point Commissioner Price is leading up to is...it may be possible to significantly improve the contract services and not just assume that it's unacceptable to the courts," he said.

McDaniel tried once more to explain why the services were, in fact, unacceptable. "Let me just say that, in my view, knowing the interpreter is everything," she began. "The effect of having quality interpreters goes beyond just the trial itself. It was because I had confidence in [an independent translator] that I recently had confidence in overruling a defendant's motion for new trial. The plea bargain was for 30 years, and the defendant claimed he understood he was only getting 15. And it was only because I had confidence in the interpreter and confidence in the Spanish-speaking defense lawyer that I had confidence overruling the motion for new trial."

McDaniel might as well have been speaking in Swahili; the commissioners' primary concern was protecting their vendor's business--ostensibly because that would protect the county's budget. "The argument is that unless you steer people toward the county contractor, their business may drop off, and it may not be worth their while," explains Jim Jackson, commissioner from Precinct 1. "Then your costs go up." At the meeting last February, Commissioner Price put it this way: "I guess my concern would be...if 84 percent of the courts' business [started] going to the independents, then the county's not going to get the other 16 percent at reasonable prices." (According to the Dallas County purchasing department, last year Dallas County spent $249,462 for translation services--87 percent of that in the criminal court system. Of that amount, some $172,496 went to Tizoc's, and an additional $76,966 was split among more than 30 independent translators.)

Mayfield chimed in with additional arguments why Tizoc's should get more than the independents. Unlike county contractors, whose services are bonded and who must maintain workers compensation and general liability insurance, the independents had no financial obligations to the county. Why shouldn't they be paid less?

Commissioners deny that Galindo's influence in the Hispanic community has anything to do with the matter. "Never heard of him. Who is he?" Jackson says.

"You can put, 'He laughed heartily,'" says Ken Mayfield, laughing heartily at the question. "I haven't heard that one." Mayfield says he is unconcerned about how this county contract could affect Hispanic voters. "There's nothing further from my mind or anyone else's. What it really has to do with is...keep[ing] the services as low as possible." Mayfield denies he's ever talked to Guillermo Galindo about this or any other issue. "Never heard of him," says Mayfield, echoing Jackson. What he does recall is that he wasn't particularly impressed with the evidence that the judges presented.

Some outside observers say that Galindo has little political influence and that commissioners are merely being true to their penny-pinching natures. "I don't think he has much [influence]--but he thinks he does," says Pat Cotton, a Republican political consultant. "The Hispanic community is like that. They have lots of chiefs, but no tribe.

"One of the things I learned working with Parkland [hospital] is, Dallas County has a policy," Cotton continues. "They hire the lowest bid, period. They don't particularly care about quality. That's just the way it is. And they often end up spending more later as a result."

The commissioners voted to have the county purchasing department investigate the dispute between the judges and Tizoc's and put off any decisions until last May, when the issue was debated and put off again.

Galindo doesn't wish to dispel the notion that he has lobbied behind the scenes to keep the independents' rates down. "They should be paid less," he says. "They don't pay insurance. They don't have bonds. If they want the county contract, they can bid for it. That's been my argument."

Independent translator Lourie Reyes doesn't buy it. "Galindo's whole thing, whenever he's criticized, is, 'You're making it hard for a minority businessperson to make it,'" she scoffs. "Well, wait a minute. I'm a double minority. And he's one of the people making it hard for me."

Until late 1996, Reyes had been paid her normal interpretation rate of $50 an hour. But within six months of the time she left Tizoc's, she received a letter from the county auditor's office demanding that she return the difference between her rates and the statutory $100-a-day rate for translators hired directly by the judges. The charge, retroactive to the date she left Tizoc's, was about $3,600, which the county deducted from Reyes' subsequent invoices. Reyes responded by offering to accept the same rate as Tizoc's, but the county refused. Since then, Reyes figures, the difference between the $100 a day the county pays her and Tizoc's rates adds up to an additional $6,000.

"Galindo's got this massive effort going to knock out the independents, and he's got a lot of influence," she says.

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