Lost in Translation

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

Liquor led to argument, argument to guns, and guns to murder. It began in the wee hours of October 9, 1997, at El Que Paso on South Lamar Street, one of the dozens of bars that draw lonely Hispanic men to the shadows of southern Dallas' freeway underpasses. Angel Santiago Curiel, the 47-year-old overseer of a small ranch just south of Dallas, had come to town to have a drink with his brother-in-law, and he stayed to have six or seven.

Around 1:30 a.m., Santiago and his brother-in-law headed for the door. According to trial testimony, they were halfway to their trucks when Santiago realized he had left his smokes behind. He started back, only to be stopped at the door by a security guard, 27-year-old Eulalio Rodriguez.

Rodriguez insisted on frisking Santiago, who protested that he had just come out seconds before. The two men traded insults before Santiago consented to be searched and retrieved his cigarettes. When he emerged, the argument continued. According to the stilted prose of the police report filed a few hours later, "[t]he disturbance went from the front door of the club to...the suspect's vehicle, from which the suspect [Santiago] obtained a handgun and shot the complainant [Rodriguez] multiple times."

Eulalio Rodriguez died at Parkland Memorial Medical Center later that morning.

The state charged Angel Santiago Curiel with murder. At first, Santiago claimed that someone else shot Rodriguez; later, he admitted firing two slugs at him, but said he did it in fear for his life. The way Santiago told it, Eulalio Rodriguez was bad news. Uniformed and angry, Rodriguez had come after Santiago, trailing him to the parking lot, brandishing what Santiago said looked like a gun, and talking about what he was going to do to Santiago. (In fact, Rodriguez was carrying a canister of tear gas.) According to the defendant, Rodriguez punched him in the mouth and then drew his weapon. It was only then, Santiago said, that he grabbed his revolver and fired.

The state offered Santiago 15 years in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. He refused the deal. In a letter to state District Judge John Nelms, Santiago said he desperately wanted to "prove my innocents." He got his chance on November 10, 1998, when his case was called for trial.

Because several of the witnesses spoke only Spanish, the district attorney's office called Tizoc's Language Consultants. Since 1995, Tizoc's has contracted with the county to provide translation services for the courts and Parkland hospital, among other county agencies. Tizoc's dispatched Monico Rodriguez, a relatively new translator from its regular roster of approximately a dozen Spanish-speakers.

That's when the second fight began.
"The guy was misinterpreting things," recalls Al Campos, Santiago's court-appointed lawyer. Campos, who is fluent in Spanish, says he was appalled at the mistakes Monico Rodriguez was making. "The state had a bilingual attorney. We would both look at each other when [the interpreter] would do it...He was paraphrasing throughout."

Judge Nelms agrees. "He had his own separate trial going on," Nelms says. Like many Dallas County judges, Nelms, 64, takes Spanish classes, but does not consider himself fluent. Yet even with his limited language skills, Nelms says, he realized something was amiss.

Nelms soon halted the trial. "When I moved for a mistrial, I think my client stated he had been hit in the mouth, and he [the interpreter] was interpreting face," Campos says. "It was important, because there was a dispute [over whether Rodriguez slugged Santiago]." The state was prepared to point out that Santiago had no visible facial bruises or lacerations when he was arrested. "We arrested him the very next day, and he was clean," recalls Dallas police detective Jesus Trevino, who was in charge of the investigation.

Nelms declared a mistrial and dismissed Monico Rodriguez from court. That's when Guillermo Galindo, president of the Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and owner of Tizoc's, showed up.

"I went up there immediately," says Galindo, who has a reputation around the courthouse for aggressively defending his interpreters. "I went to the judge--Judge Nelms. And I went to him and said, 'I'd like to review the tapes'...And then we listened to the tapes, and I had other people listen to the tapes--other people that don't work for the company. We felt that there were no mistakes.

"One word. He said that the individual said, 'Hit me in the mouth,'" Galindo says. "And they alleged that he [the translator] said 'hit me in the face.' Nothing to change the context or the argument of the court. That's what really got me real angry...How do you differentiate between the face and the mouth?

"Now we're going to go to the court to get those tapes to transcribe, because I'm going to prove to the judge and I'm going to prove to that defense attorney that they were totally wrong to dismiss this interpreter. And secondly, if you're going to dismiss an expert witness, an expert individual, you bring another expert to disqualify that individual."

Despite Galindo's belief that he is right, many judges, defense lawyers, independent translators, and court and law-enforcement personnel have nothing good to say about Tizoc's. The way they portray it, Galindo hires poorly qualified translators, provides them little or no training, and flies into rages when they are questioned. Yet Galindo gets his county contract renewed, many allege, by commissioners more concerned about keeping court costs down--not to mention getting re-elected in an increasingly Hispanic Dallas County--than about the quality of justice provided.

"I just don't think that politics ought to determine whether we have competent interpreters in our courtrooms," says Lana McDaniel, who, as presiding felony judge for Dallas County, handles administrative tasks for her fellow judges. Since last February, when she became presiding judge, she has, in her own words, made it her "top priority" to do something about what she perceives as the poor quality of translations provided by Tizoc's. Because of a number of translator errors that have resulted in mistrials, several Dallas County judges refuse to use Tizoc's and rely instead on independent contractors. The independents, meanwhile, say that Galindo is pressuring the county not to pay them a fair rate. "He's trying to run us all out of business," independent translator Lourie Reyes says.

Galindo denies that he wants to put his competitors out of business and insists that Tizoc's provides superior-quality translations. "I'll put my company up against anybody," he says. And he has a few counter-charges of his own. "I have come to the conclusion that [with] certain judges, it's just the institutional racism," he says. "They don't mind using one individual interpreter. But the moment that a minority company begins to grow a little, it seems to me that they don't [want to see it]." Galindo says that the judges' preference for independent translators is a "divide-and-conquer" tactic to keep his minority business from gaining strength. "I'm quite confident that if it was an Anglo company, they wouldn't be doing that to us."

The battle over the quality of state court translators has been quietly growing over the last year, moving from the courthouse to the commissioners court to the county auditor's office to the state Legislature, and recently to a subcommittee of the Texas Judicial Council, a state agency that recommends improvements to Texas courts. Incompetence, influence-peddling, and racism aren't the only charges flying around. The Dallas Observer was able to find several irregularities in Tizoc's invoices submitted to the county.

Yet at its regular session last week, the Dallas County Commissioners Court awarded Tizoc's another contract to provide translation services--and at significantly increased hourly rates. The question is, Why?

There are three matters on which everyone agrees. One, translating in criminal court proceedings is one of the toughest, most demanding jobs anyone can have. "I'll be honest with you. Not everybody has the experience [to translate] in the legal [field]," Galindo says. "It's not so much a question of language ability, but the procedure."

Says Reyes, "It's not true that just because you speak the language you can translate." A 45-year-old who emigrated from Cuba as a child, Reyes holds a master's degree from SMU and is one of the independent translators most in demand at the courthouse. Reyes used to work for Galindo, but she left in 1996. (Galindo says she was fired; Reyes says she quit after Galindo asked her to double bill the county for her time.)

Two, everyone recognizes that as the Hispanic population of Dallas County increases, the demand for translation services in its courts is only going to grow. Last year, the county received more than 2,500 calls for translators in its courts and hospital facilities. Of those, some 91 percent were for Spanish translators. According to the Census Bureau, in 1990 the population of Dallas County was 14.5 percent Hispanic; by 1996, it had climbed to 20 percent. The Texas State Data Center at Texas A&M University projects that by 2030, Hispanics will make up somewhere between 28 percent and 50 percent of Dallas County's population.

"We're just going to have more and more Spanish-speaking defendants, Spanish-speaking witnesses," McDaniel says. Consequently, she is among several lawyers and jurists who are lobbying the Legislature and the Texas Supreme Court to adopt minimum competency standards for interpreters--something the Legislature has so far declined to do. Despite having the second-largest Hispanic population of any state, Texas is among the 31 states that make no attempt to ascertain the competency of court translators. There have been several tries to pass such legislation, most recently in 1995, but to no avail. "The argument in smaller counties is that certification will drive up costs, and they won't be able to use the janitor down at the school anymore," says McDaniel, who recently returned from a trip to Austin to try, once more, to get a bill introduced this session.

The need for standards is the third area of agreement among combatants. "I even told some friends--I told the state legislators--that we need to look at maybe getting a certification program from the state," Galindo says.

Since 1978, the federal courts have required translators to pass a certification exam. The federal exam is widely acknowledged to be difficult, with passage rates in the single digits. Certified federal court interpreters are paid around $280 a day. (None of the interpreters currently working in the Dallas County state courts has passed the federal exam.)

Likewise, since 1994, California, the state with the largest Hispanic population, has required its court interpreters to pass a rigorous set of examinations in eight language categories. Opponents of the certification requirement argued that the costs of interpretation services would skyrocket, but that has not happened, according to a spokeswoman for the California Judicial Council. Indeed, according to the council, which oversees the certification program, interpreter rates vary from $75 to $210 a day--often less than Dallas County pays its untested translators.

Beyond these three items, however, the parties see eye-to-eye on little else--not even when the current imbroglio began. "About four years ago, I was able to win the [county] contract," Galindo says. "And up until a year ago, I thought we were doing great."

A charming man, well educated and well spoken in five languages, Galindo has been a prominent Hispanic community activist for a quarter century. He has run unsuccessfully several times for various local offices, from the Dallas school board to the city council, and has held a number of high-profile positions, including service on the city parks board and as president of SER, a federally funded job training program. He also led a number of community organizations, from Los Barrios Unidos to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "I think he's a very influential individual," says former city councilman and state Rep. Domingo Garcia, who has in the past worked closely with Galindo on issues of importance in the Hispanic community. "I've seen him change over the years from a grassroots activist to more of a mainstream fighter for economic parity for Latinos."

Unfortunately, Galindo has a tendency to make assertions that turn out to be less than true.

"We knew we had certain complaints," he says, "because some judges who knew me would call me and say, 'Guillermo, you know, your interpreter was late.' And, you know, we'd get in it. But then all of a sudden, I am stunned...I go to the courthouse--I think it was last November--and I am stunned by the negative feedback I am getting from [Lana McDaniel]."

Actually, when McDaniel took the reins last year, she inherited a problem that had been brewing for some time.

"I have seen it [bad court translations] for many years," detective Trevino says, "and I have seen the unfortunate occurrences there [in the courts]. I don't know why, because there are plenty of qualified Spanish translators in Dallas County."

County Commissioner Jim Jackson says the problem has been going on at least since 1995, when Tizoc's contract was awarded. News reports from '95 detail Tizoc's-related mistrials. Yet the exact number of mistrials, let alone complaints, is hard to pin down. Defense attorneys recall several mistrials caused by Tizoc's mistranslation and many more incidents in which Tizoc's employees were dismissed from court proceedings because of translation problems. (Galindo insists that in four years, he's had "only 18" complaints, and that most of those were about interpreters being late.)

In a 1995 case, visiting Judge Bill Stephens declared a mistrial in a capital murder case after a Spanish-speaking juror complained that the interpreter was not being sufficiently precise in her translations. According to news reports, the Tizoc's interpreter was freely paraphrasing important bits of testimony--for example, saying that the witness saw someone "hit" when the witness had stated that she saw someone "shot." The articles quoted Guillermo Galindo as questioning the juror's language skills. Galindo also stated that he was worried that "[a]s a minority contractor, it [the mistrial] makes me look bad."

By December 1997, the grousing about Tizoc's had become so loud that McDaniel's predecessor as presiding felony judge, Keith Dean, asked the county purchasing department to undertake a survey rating Tizoc's services. Respondents were asked to mark Tizoc's from one to five, one being "unsatisfactory," five being "excellent," and three being "average." Tizoc's received an overall rating of 2.86--somewhere between "average" and "needs improvement." A number of respondents included unflattering anecdotes about various Tizoc's translators, including Galindo himself.

Armed with the survey and tales of interpreter mishaps, in February 1998, McDaniel and fellow Judge Vickers Cunningham briefed the Dallas County commissioners about the problems they had encountered with Tizoc's. There was something specific they wanted from the county. Since a 1979 law was passed by the Legislature, state judges can pay only $100 a day to independent court interpreters. The statute--an odd bit of legislative-judicial branch mistrust aimed at preventing kickbacks between judges and translators--may once have provided interpreters a living wage. But 20 years later, it meant that independent translators were capped at just over $12 an hour. By way of comparison, under its 1995 contract with the county, Tizoc's received between $25 and $35 an hour for Spanish translation, and $35 to $45 an hour for other languages. In other words, the judges were free to hire the interpreters they wanted--so long as the independent contractors were willing to work for much less than the Tizoc's translators.

The statute provided an exception, however. County commissioners could allow the judges to pay their chosen translators a higher wage. The judges were simply asking the commissioners to let them to pay their independent interpreters the same rates the county paid Galindo's translators. "I speak on behalf of my fellow judges," McDaniel told the commissioners in February '98. "We have had problems with Tizoc's, the language service that is currently being used by the county...that has forced me and many of the other judges to rely on individuals, independent interpreters who we have known to be competent and who give quality interpretation in our courts. And the problem is, under the current situation, those people cannot make more than $100 a day."

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.

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.

"Let's just be frank," said Commissioner Jim Jackson at one of the half-dozen commissioners meetings in which court translators were discussed. "We've all seen some of these judges go a little crazy. There was the family court judge that ran up $700,000 in psychiatric evaluations. And the criminal court judge who paid a million in court appointments to a friend of his."

The Dallas County purchasing department went back and forth, trying to mediate between the commissioners and the judges. When it sent out new requests for bids last September, it built in some stiff new requirements. Among them was a provision that if Tizoc's failed to respond, the county could call the second-lowest bidder and charge back the difference in rates to Tizoc's. But Tizoc's won a few sweetened provisions too--among them a two-hour minimum charge and a two-hour window for emergency calls.

The purchasing department tried to throw a bone to the judges as well, recommending that Tizoc's new bid be approved but that the daily rate for independents be raised to $200 a day.

But the commissioners weren't biting. Last week, they approved Tizoc's new contract at the higher rates and tabled any discussion of raising the independents' rates.

Meanwhile, last November, Angel Santiago Curiel went to trial again with an independent translator. This time around, the jury heard his version of events and sentenced him to 40 years in prison.

Monico Rodriguez, in turn, got his chance to translate in another murder case last December. This time, he got to the second day before the judge, Molly Francis, ordered the jury out.

Turning to Rodriguez, Francis pointed out the error. "When he [the witness] said...'Do you know Arturo Arellano [the deceased]?', he [the witness] said '[Arturo] is my good friend.' And you said 'friend.'"

Rodriguez began to argue. "I believe he said..."
But Francis was in no mood to hear it. "I heard him say 'good friend,' and you interpreted 'friend,' and I have got some problems with proceeding with the interpretation as is."

"The question was, 'How do you know the deceased?'" defense attorney Brook Busbee recalls. "And the guy on the stand was the one who was trying to put it [the murder] on my client--so the jury needed to understand the motivation."

Francis agreed--although this time, she didn't dismiss the jury. Instead, she dismissed the interpreter and called an independent translator to finish the job. And she made a record for later use. "We have got to have absolute confidence in these interpreters, or the proceedings are a joke," Francis said. "We might as well not even be here."

A few hours later, Guillermo Galindo was there, defending his interpreter and his company.

"He said, 'You should have called me at once,'" Francis says. "And I said, 'For heaven's sake, we were in the middle of a jury trial.'"

"The defense lawyer admitted that [all] she knows [is] street Spanish," says Galindo, who insists his translator was not at fault in the second case either. "I went to see the judge because I was concerned. And because, look, if Monico was wrong, I want to correct [it]. Monico asked the defendant afterward and asked the witness that was there, and they said both of them said [he] was [not] wrong. And the judge didn't pay any attention to that. So I have come to the conclusion that certain judges--it's just the institutional racism.

"This is again what I see, what I call the institutional racism--the divide and conquer...What gets me is that all these people who are freelancers have gone through me. You know, and the reason I fired them, two of them, they never could make it on time," Galindo says.

But many courthouse regulars question Galindo's charges.
"Look. I don't care if they're independent or if they're from Tizoc's," says Busbee. "Hell, I don't even care if they're a member of the Communist Party. I just want them to get it right.

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