By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Oh my word. Oh my, oh my. I am looking at this. I don't want to see it. It just came in the mail. This is scary.
A couple weeks ago in the course of some reporting on Dallas County Judge Jim Foster, I asked his assistant, Bob Johnston, for a copy of the judge's appointment schedule for July. You probably think that's pretty nosy of me. It is. They pay me for my nose.
I had a reason for asking for it. Not important now. Johnston didn't give the schedule to me. My request had to go through the Dallas County District Attorney's Office. There is an explanation for that, sort of. Forget it. Not important now.
What's important now is this thing in front of me. I am looking at Dallas County Judge Jim Foster's appointment schedule for the entire month of July. Folks, it is empty. Except for a few little doodads here and there, his appointment schedule for the entire month of July is a white arctic waste. My eyes feel like they are trudging across the frozen tundra, searching for any sign of him.
I even hear that balalaika music from Dr. Zhivago, and I imagine that I am staggering through snow drifts with frozen tootsies and a big beard of icicles.
"Juuuudge Fooooster. Must find Juuuuudge Fooooster somewhere in this calendar."
You know about Judge Jim ("The Accident") Foster, right? He was elected to the top position in county government in November of last year in a Democratic Party sweep of county offices. Republicans were caught asleep at the switch by a tidal wave of Democratic voters, and many county officeholders were tossed out. One was County Judge Margaret Keliher, a young progressive Republican who had been considered popular.
Not popular enough. The wave swept over the county courthouse, and when the waters receded, a strange little man nobody had ever heard of, operator of a fire alarm company and far-peripheral political player, one Jim Foster, was sitting in the county judge's seat.
The immediate take on Foster, after he had presided over his first couple county Commissioners Court meetings, was of a man who did not know how to preside over county Commissioners Court meetings. When other commissioners attempted to explain niceties of parliamentary procedure to him, he stared back at them in numb furrowed brow befuddlement as if they were explaining quark-gluon plasma.
By now his reputation at the county courthouse has settled into that of a mysterious little man who is hardly ever there. As another commissioner put it to me last week, "He's in and out. In more ways than one."
Therefore I was much interested, when his work schedule finally arrived on my desk last week, to see what I could see. So now I'm looking at it. And I can't see anything.
Well that's not quite fair. A recurring entry on successive days throughout the month is for something called "Block." I e-mailed Bob Johnston and asked, "Is Block a person? If not, can you tell me what the term signifies?"
I was serious. How do I know? Maybe it's Dr. Block, his podiatrist. Or Rabbi Block. Or his clogging instructor, Chakka Block.
I didn't get an answer. In fact I asked Johnston several questions in a couple of e-mails and tried to follow up by phone but received no response whatsoever, which signals an even deeper retreat from the outside world by Judge Foster. Previously at least Johnston would e-mail me from the inner sanctum to say that the judge would have no response. Now apparently he's not even allowed to admit that he and the judge are in there.
I sure hope Johnston is in there and OK. I've known him for a long time, and he's a good guy. Eventually if this gets worse, I will insist that some kind of police agency go over there and drill holes in the wall.
"OK, Foster, we know you've got Johnston in there. Open the damn door!"
So on a Monday in this calendar, for example we have two entries: 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., "Block." Then noon to 1 p.m., "David Tessmer." From there on, it's a solid white-out.
Tuesday, 8:45 a.m. to 9 a.m., "Rev. Ted." From 9 a.m. to noon, "Commissioners Court." Glad that's on there. Then white space. Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m., "Oak Cliff Lions Club." Balance of the day presumably devoted to rest and recovery.
Thursday, 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., "Benefits Committee." Another tough day at the office.
Friday. From 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., "Block."
You know, Block really could be anything, couldn't it? On the one hand, it could be special, intensive, sharp-pencil long-range planning sessions for county fiscal policy. On the other hand, it could be necrophilia orgies at the morgue. Or something between the two extremes. I just wish the judge would offer some precision.
But, no. Radio silence. I also asked Johnston in an e-mail, "Is the judge still actively involved in Paramount Alarm or any other private company? If so, approximately how many hours per week does he devote to that activity?"
Why would I ask that? Well, when I call for him at Paramount Alarm, they always tell me he just stepped out. When I ask when he might be back in, the lady on the phone says, "He's in and out of here a lot."
Unlike the county commissioner, she does not add, "In more ways than one."
County Commissioner John Wiley Price pointed out to me that, "There is no prohibition, so he would be within his rights to keep running his company."
Sure. I can see that. There is the small matter of the $147,367 a year that we taxpayers are paying him to serve as the chief elected officer of our county government, not to mention his $9,173 car and cell phone allowance for 2007.
But, hey. It's just tax money. Let's move, if we may, to a much more important point: What should the county judge's schedule look like? I called Keliher, his predecessor, whom I did not ask to comment on Foster's schedule. Keliher is out of there now, working for a big law firm, and I know she doesn't like to say things that sound snarky about the guy who beat her when she ran for re-election.
So I just asked her, "What was a typical day for you, when you were the county's top elected official?"
"Actually it was quite an exciting life," she said. "There would be days when I would go in, and I would have a breakfast meeting where I talked about what was going on at Parkland hospital. And then I would go and talk about what was going on in transportation over lunch. And then I had a meeting with people talking about what we were doing about truancy.
"You had to love it, because it was all in the course of a day. You had all these issues. In my whole day, all I did was go from meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting, all day long. I did so many things also in the nighttime.
"I take kids to school, so I started about 8:30 and went to about 7 at night. It was just the most hectic schedule. And I didn't even know at the beginning of the day what I was going to do. All I did was get my calendar, and if I had a hole in it, my scheduler would fill it, so we just did things all day long."
Yeah. I wanted to ask her, "In the course of your work as county judge, did you ever run into a certain Mr. Block?" But the moment didn't present itself.
So there is that factor. The county judge in a major urban county has major responsibilities. It should be a high-pressure job. And as far as I can tell from Judge Foster's calendar, he does virtually no work at all. Depending on what goes on during "Block." And the question there would be: Is "Block" good work or naughty?
So there's the money we pay him. And there's the work he should be doing but is not. But here is the even stranger thing, the weirder than weird aspect, the hair-standing-up factor: After the district attorney released to me the judge's July calendar, my very able colleague, Matt Pulle, put in a request for the judge's calendar for the entire year for something Pulle is working on.
Pulle reported to me that he subsequently had been called by an assistant district attorney who told him the judge had said he would agree to have his calendar for the entire year released only if the District Attorney's Office would redact the physical addresses of the very few places where the judge actually has engagements, like the Oak Cliff Lions Club luncheon or the grand opening of the Domingo Garcia law firm.
I called Maura Schulke, the assistant district attorney who had spoken to Pulle. She said: "The judge has requested that we assert a security exception, because, um, the calendar would show a pattern of his comings and goings."
Like for terrorists? Well, hey. If there are any terrorists out there listening, you don't need to bother with the calendar. I can tell you what the pattern is. He ain't there. It's all goings. No comings.
I will say this. If there is some kind of gigantic scary bogeyman out there with hair all over his face and big claws and feet like an elephant and slobber who needs to know how to find Judge Foster, the judge does show up every Tuesday at 9 a.m. for the Commissioners Court meeting, after his 15-minute meeting with the Reverend Ted.
If anybody stops you, just tell them, "Me Mr. Block."
Hey, Democrats? You gotta fix this. Really. C'mon. Think about it. C'mon.