Lost in Translation

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

Reyes left Tizoc's in March 1996, in part, she claims, because Galindo pressured her to double bill so that he could collect for her being in two courts at the same time. (Reyes says she never did it.) Although Reyes was the only person interviewed who was willing to put her name by the charges, several former Tizoc's employees also say they were pressured to submit questionable bills.

Here's how it works: When an interpreter is called to a court or to the jail, he or she fills out a voucher. The voucher lists pertinent information such as the date, the case, and the hours worked. According to both Galindo and county purchasing, interpreters are not supposed to collect for being in two courts at once.

While that may seem self-evident, Galindo says there was once a dispute over the matter. "There was a question in the beginning," he says. "We went back and forth with the auditors...But finally we agreed, and we don't do it now." (Galindo didn't respond to requests asking him to clarify how alleged double billing might be explained.)

Yet a sample of Tizoc's vouchers paid by the county for the months of September and October 1998 reveals a number of instances of double billing. For example, on October 15, a Tizoc's translator submitted a voucher showing that she was in the 363rd District Court from 9 a.m. until noon--and translating for the grand jury from 11:30 a.m. until 12:25 p.m. The next day, another Tizoc's interpreter submitted vouchers showing he was in the 195th District Court from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m., and on the same day interpreting in the jail from 3:30 p.m. until 4 p.m.

During a two-month period from September 15 through November 15, 1998, such double billings occurred no less than 13 times. And that's just on the vouchers on which interpreters' names and times were included; on a significant number of vouchers, no time or name was listed, making conflicts impossible to track down.

Mel Stepp, first assistant Dallas County auditor, says his department has no system in place to prevent or catch such instances of double billing. "Before we pay, we verify that the rate being charged is correct," Stepp says. "The court certifies the time. But we wouldn't catch that [when Tizoc's interpreters have billed for being in two courts at the same time]. Not unless somebody happened to remember it."

Moreover, during September and October 1998--a period that included hundreds of jail calls--Tizoc's met its 30-minute guaranteed response time less than half the time. Delays of six or more hours between the time Tizoc's was called and the time an interpreter arrived were not unusual.

Nevertheless, Galindo insists his company is providing superior service to the county. "On Spanish, we don't have a problem," Galindo says. "I think that response-time kink is out. But we're human. We may make a mistake now and then."

In response to the judges' survey, Galindo dashed off a four-page letter last June to the commissioners. He argued that the survey was incomplete, that it was unfairly skewed, and that no one other than an "expert" was competent to question his translators. He laid his problems squarely at the feet of the independent interpreters.

"Tizoc's feels very strongly that several independent interpreters have been slandering our interpreters' performance to DAs, yet at the same time these independent interpreters are mentioned by several judges in a very negative manner and given poor reviews," he wrote. (Galindo didn't respond to the Observer's request that he elaborate on this allegation.) "These same interpreters have been lobbying key court staff to increase their fee scale. This could pose serious problems to the county if this lobbying produces increased costs for the taxpayer due to political lobbying and cronyism."

In fairness, it isn't clear that the independent interpreters' jail response times would be any better were the sheriff's department able to use independents. Nor are the independent translators certified. And when the county purchasing department sent out requests for bids last fall, Tizoc's increased its rates by 50 percent and still underbid the next-lowest bidder, The Foreign Language Center, by at least $30 an hour in all language categories--a significant margin.

A look at Galindo's roster of translators explains, in part, how he's able to do it. Though Galindo declined to provide his interpreters' resumes, his list of names submitted to the county shows that of 21 Spanish-speaking interpreters, six are Galindo's relatives. (Three are nieces just out of high school.) At least four are moonlighting DISD administrators--an interesting aspect, since Galindo has billed for one assistant principal on at least eight occasions when, according to a DISD spokesman, the administrator was supposed to be at school. In the past, his roster of interpreters has included some with little knowledge of the American legal system--an illegal alien, for example--and some with firsthand knowledge of the justice system, such as a former felon.

Still, his services are priced right. And for this last reason, Galindo couldn't have a more receptive audience than the Dallas County commissioners, who have long been embroiled in a power struggle with the judges, whom they have from time to time accused of being spendthrifts.

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