By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"I just know that on the front page it highlighted the concerns this investigation revealed pertaining to these issues," Foster says when asked by a reporter. He dismisses a follow-up, claming he'll only take one question from each reporter. Foster struggles to stay afloat.
Larry Duncan says it was no coincidence that the press conference took place the day before early voting, and he points to Lundy as choreographing the event. "We need to stomp out corruption wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. That's what we need to do, but we don't need to turn it into a three-ring circus."
The botched press conference was a colossal misstep as the report contained numerous allegations against Cortes—if only Foster could have detailed and discussed them. But by the time he or anyone else could digest the report, it was already yesterday's news. It was classic Jim Foster. He just couldn't get out of his own way while armed with the report that could have secured much-needed votes at the polls. "I guess hindsight's 20-20, and I'm nearly going blind," he says.
Defenbaugh, who worked without subpoena power and forwarded any criminal evidence to the FBI and district attorney, found that Cortes may be abusing his power by accepting bribes from Dowdy Ferry and mistreating employees. The report also alleged that Cortes forced his deputies to campaign for him while on duty and contribute money to his campaign by selling raffle tickets.
Foster subsequently released Defenbaugh's reports on Kwanzaa Fest and Constable Evans. The Kwanzaa Fest report claimed that approximately 49 deputy constables serving under Cortes and Evans worked at Kwanzaa Fest, an annual nonprofit event held at Fair Park and chaired by Commissioner Price. The officers earned more than $15,000 for the work from Dallas County. However, Kwanzaa Fest is not a Dallas County-sponsored event, and it did not contract with the county for the security services provided by the constables. The document also says at least 22 deputies were "intimidated and coerced" to provide security at Kwanzaa Fest and didn't receive compensation. In a press conference held shortly after the report was released, Price said all security personnel at Kwanzaa Fest worked on a volunteer basis and no one was paid.
"I refute all of what I consider to be baseless and politically motivated charges that have surfaced at the hands of the accidental county judge," Price said.
The Evans report was much shorter than Cortes' at 16 pages, and it centered mostly on allegations that Evans abused his office by requiring his deputies to fund his campaigns by selling raffle tickets or buying the tickets themselves. Several employees also claimed that Evans intimidated them into providing security at community events such as Kwanzaa Fest without pay.
Cortes and Evans both ran for reelection in the March 2 primary. Evans resoundingly defeated three challengers with 58 percent of the vote, while Cortes faces an April 13 runoff against Beth Villarreal. Neither faces a Republican challenger in November. Commissioner Price has donated to both their campaigns, and powerful Democratic State Senator Royce West, a mentor to District Attorney Watkins and the largest contributor to his campaign, serves as Evans' attorney.
Darlene Ewing and other Democrats view Foster's decision to investigate the constables as undermining Watkins and as a political witch hunt by Mayfield and Dickey, who manipulated Foster into doing their bidding.
"If you don't think the district attorney is doing it properly, then call the Texas Rangers. Call the attorney general," she says. "But you don't decide you're going to become the caped crusader of corruption."
The Texas Office of the Attorney General, however, asked Watkins in August 2009 to let the OAG assist in an investigation of the constables and was rebuffed. And following the release of the Cortes report, Eric Nichols, deputy attorney general for criminal justice, made another plea to Watkins.
"We reiterate our offer of the resources of our Criminal Justice Division in the investigation and potential prosecution of any violations of law that may have occurred, whether involving potential criminal prosecution and/or removal proceedings," Nichols wrote on February 23.
Jerry Strickland, spokesman for the OAG, says Watkins has not responded.
John Barr has been close to the investigation, serving as an attorney to both Foster and Defenbaugh, who were targets of lawsuits by Watkins and Cortes. Barr says county employees started complaining to the FBI in 2008, but the agency struggled to establish jurisdiction, placing the matter in the hands of Watkins. Yet Barr claims that only one of the employees interviewed by Defenbaugh had been interviewed by anyone at the District Attorney's Office.
"Why hadn't the DA's investigators talked to these people before if they were doing an investigation?" Barr says. "Why hadn't they talked to 'em? Where is the investigation?"
In a lawsuit filed by Cortes on February 24 asking for Foster's removal from office, he alleged that Foster's conduct toward him is motivated "by animosity resulting from what happened to his friend Mike Dupree."
Foster says his motivation is simple. None of this is about politics or payback. It's about doing what's right. For more than a year, these employees have sat in his office and complained to Foster, no longer just fearing for their jobs, but fearing for their personal wellbeing and the safety of their families. "I'm the person that they were going to, and they're still coming to me," he says. "And I wish I weren't in the middle of it, but I am because they don't know where else to go."