For most people charged with a petty misdemeanor such as speeding, showing up at the drab courtrooms of Dallas Municipal Court is an annoying experience.
Long waits generated by the glutted city bureaucracy are not made any easier by coming face-to-face with municipal judges, whose heavy caseloads sometimes inspire them to deliver justice with an attitude.
Some people, however, occasionally find a friendly face on the bench. Some people, that is, like Marcia Prewitt, who was stopped while driving 59 mph in a 40-mph zone in April 1997.
Marcia Prewitt happens to be the daughter-in-law of Municipal Court Judge Brenda Prewitt, who just happened to intervene on the speeding citation earlier this year--after the case already was considered closed.
A complaint about Judge Prewitt's action prompted an investigation by City Auditor Robert Melton, who in March concluded that Prewitt had committed an "apparent code of ethics violation."
This week, the Dallas City Council will decide whether to reappoint 26 full- and part-time municipal judges, basing their decisions on recommendations made in March by the city's Judicial Nominating Commission. Of those judges, the commission recommended that all be reappointed, save one.
Surely, the lone standout was Judge Brenda Prewitt?
The unlucky jurist is Gustavo Gonzales, who stands accused of being "defiant" because he didn't want to repay $5,766.51 in excess salary he received through a clerical error that was no fault of his own.
And what of Judge Prewitt?
Prewitt submitted her resignation last Friday--just five days before she was about to face the scrutiny of a hostile city council, where some members were preparing to use her apparent lapse in ethics as leverage to keep Gonzales on the bench.
Although Gonzales has, reluctantly, repaid the money, the council may still give him the heave-ho during Wednesday's meeting.
"I'm absolutely stunned," says council member Donna Blumer, who had not heard of Prewitt's resignation until she spoke with the Dallas Observer last Friday. Until then, Blumer was considering whether to introduce a motion to block Prewitt's reappointment while throwing her support behind Gonzales.
"Maybe it's for the best," Blumer says.
Yet the disrobing of both judges gives a glimpse into a system that was ready to allow unethical behavior to go undisciplined as long as the city's tax dollars weren't at stake.
How Gonzales' and Prewitt's reappointments became so acrimonious is difficult to determine, because the controversies are considered personnel matters and have mostly been discussed behind closed doors.
In addition, the parties involved aren't revealing many details.
Still, the judges' actions are relatively clear-cut.
First there is Gonzales, a lawyer appointed to the municipal bench in January 1995. At the time, Gonzales was supposed to be paid $60,164.76 annually, according to the pay rates the city sets for rookie municipal judges. Instead, the city accidentally paid Gonzales $64,376.31.
Ed Cloutman, a lawyer representing Gonzales on the matter, says that when Gonzales interviewed for the position, he was told he would be paid an annual salary ranging from $63,000 to $72,000. So Gonzales didn't bat an eye when the inflated checks started coming.
"After he got the selection notice, the next thing he gets is a notification from the personnel office indicating what his salary would be," says Cloutman. The amount was within the range that Gonzales was told he would earn. "He wished it were more, but what the heck?"
Gonzales declined to comment and referred questions to Cloutman.
About 17 months later, in May 1996, the city discovered the error, which by then had amounted to $5,766.51 in excess salary. City officials informed Gonzales of their mistake, adjusted his salary, and told him he had to give the extra money back.
The city offered to let Gonzales return the money in reasonable payments, but Gonzales didn't think he should have to pay it back at all.
Acting on Gonzales' behalf, Cloutman began a debate with the city that dragged on for more than a year, according to correspondence that Cloutman disclosed.
Initially, Cloutman argued that the city should forgive the debt because it was the city's fault, not Gonzales'. Later, Cloutman suggested that an independent arbitrator should settle the dispute.
City Attorney Sam Lindsay and Judge Michael O'Neal, who oversees the administration of the municipal court, would have none of it, according to letters they sent to Cloutman and Gonzales. (Both Lindsay and O'Neal declined to discuss the subject in any detail.)
"While I appreciate the equity issues raised in your letter of April 10, 1997, I see no legal basis upon which to make an exception for Judge Gonzales," Lindsay wrote Cloutman on May 1, 1997. "[T]he money paid to him was public money, entrusted to City government by the taxpayers. I would be remiss in my duties as City Attorney if I did not request repayment of those public funds."
Gonzales remained defiant until March 23, 1998, when the Judicial Nominating Commission voted unanimously to recommend that he not be reappointed to the bench because of his refusal to repay the money.
The 15-member commission consists of volunteers, who are appointed by city council members and tasked with nominating municipal judges for their initial appointments and reviewing them for reappointment as their terms expire every two years. The commission has no enforcement power, but its recommendations carry weight with the city council.
Even after the commission's vote, Gonzales was still clinging to his money.
"It is my fervent desire to let the matter rest," Gonzales wrote in a letter dated March 26 and addressed to O'Neal. "Toward that end, I am prepared to pay in full the sum of $5,766.51 consistent with my reappointment" (emphasis added).
A copy of that letter was circulated to the six members of the council's Municipal and Minority Affairs Committee during a May 12 meeting. That committee, made up of council members, reviews the nominating commission's recommendations before they are sent to the full council. After considerable discussion, the committee split over whether Gonzales should be reappointed.
Council members Al Lipscomb, Larry Duncan, and Laura Miller voted against reappointment, while John Loza, Don Hicks, and Donna Blumer favored Gonzales. Under committee rules, the split vote meant that the recommendation against Gonzales' reappointment was forwarded to the full council for a vote.
At the time, Lipscomb says, he was offended by Gonzales' attitude.
"I thought it was reckless on this man's part at that point. I thought it was defiant," says Lipscomb, who serves as the chairman of the committee.
But Loza, who is Gonzales' biggest supporter, says he objected to the recommendation because he thinks Gonzales is a good judge who is the victim of an innocent mistake.
"My main focus at this point is to try and keep Judge Gonzales on the bench," says Loza, who has appeared before Gonzales as a private attorney and says he is impressed with his temperament. "He has a fine record, as far as I'm concerned, and there isn't any other reason why he shouldn't be retained as a sitting municipal judge."
The full council was scheduled to decide the matter Wednesday, June 10, but the committee vote was enough to break Gonzales. On May 20, he delivered a check to Lindsay.
The possibility of losing his job convinced Gonzales to repay the money, Cloutman concedes.
"[Gonzales] said, 'Oh, gee, maybe they're serious.' So we paid the money," says Cloutman, who adds that he and Gonzales still believe they have a "legitimate dispute."
While Gonzales continued his dispute with the city, Judge Brenda Prewitt was hauled before the Judicial Nominating Commission and asked to explain the matter of her daughter-in-law's speeding ticket.
Initially, the way Marcia Prewitt's speeding ticket was handled was not unusual, according to a two-page summary of the incident completed by auditor Melton on March 13.
Last August, the case went into bond forfeiture status after Marcia Prewitt failed to show up for her first court appearance. Shortly afterward, the case was reset for a jury trial in November.
On the scheduled trial date, Marcia Prewitt appeared before Judge Victor Lander and asked that she be given deferred adjudication--a resolution that would avoid having a conviction for a moving violation show up on her driving record. The request was approved by Lander, who ruled that all Prewitt had to do to get the case dismissed was pay a $130 cash bond within 30 days and serve 180 days' probation.
But Prewitt failed to pay the cash bond on time and, when the money arrived late, the court considered it payment for a fine--meaning that the speeding citation would appear on Prewitt's driving record and possibly increase her insurance rates.
In the eyes of the court, the case was closed--until Judge Brenda Prewitt stepped in.
On January 21, an "unknown" attorney approached Judge Prewitt and requested that her daughter-in-law's case be reopened. Prewitt complied and set a new trial date. Later that day, however, Gloria Mays, the supervisor of court support services, informed Prewitt that since the defendant had already paid the fine, the $130 would have to be refunded if she were going to reopen the case.
Before the day was over, Prewitt modified the original judgment and dismissed the case for want of prosecution, ruling that the probation was satisfied even though Marcia Prewitt had not completed the 180 days ordered by Lander. The city would keep the $130, but the ticket would not appear on the daughter-in-law's record.
An employee in the court services department didn't like the way the case smelled and phoned in a complaint to the city's fraud, waste, and abuse hotline, prompting Melton to investigate.
Judge Prewitt hung up the phone when contacted by the Observer at home earlier this week, but in a March 13 letter to the city council, she denied any wrongdoing.
In the letter, Prewitt explained that she did not know the case she had acted on twice in one day involved her daughter-in-law until Melton contacted her as part of his investigation.
"My recollections of my actions on this case commenced on or about January 21, 1998, when an attorney unknown to me requested that the case be set for trial by Jury," Prewitt wrote. "As is my usual practice, I reset the case for jury trial and recorded the City account number given to me by the requesting attorney...I had no actual knowledge of the identity of the defendant at that time."
After Mays contacted Judge Prewitt about the inconsistency with the decision, Prewitt explained that she "eliminated the jury trial setting and dismissed the case so the City's prior actions would be in conformity with the law, and no refund would be due," according to her letter.
Melton declined to discuss his investigation with the Observer, but a copy of the judgment in the case raises questions about Prewitt's story.
At the bottom of the judgment, a large "X" appears in a box indicating that on January 21, 1998, defendant Marcia Prewitt personally asked Judge Prewitt that the case be reset for trial. That X is crossed out, and another X is marked next to the word "Counsel," indicating that the request was made by the defendant's attorney, who was identified by a city account number.
The account number belongs to Dallas lawyer Michelle Smith, according to city records. When contacted by the Observer last week, Smith says she doesn't know why her account number showed up on the judgment because she didn't represent Marcia Prewitt.
At the top of the judgment, Marcia Prewitt's name also is clearly legible. Even though there is only one Marcia Prewitt listed in the Dallas telephone directory, Judge Prewitt maintains that she didn't notice the name.
"The number of cases coming before me for various rulings are so great," Prewitt wrote to the council, "that I concentrate on the case status and history as well as the law applicable usually without regard to the particular defendant."
As part of his investigation, however, Melton concluded that Prewitt "should have been reasonably aware of the identity of the defendant."
Why the Judicial Nominating Commission chose to recommend Prewitt's reappointment--even though its members were aware of Melton's findings and had discussed the issue with Prewitt behind closed doors--is a question that remains unanswered.
Commission chairman Stanley Mays refused to provide any explanation for the decisions involving Prewitt or Gonzales. Other commission members contacted by the Observer also declined to comment on the closed-door discussions.
In fact, it was almost by accident that city council members even learned of Prewitt's behavior. The council members were given a thick packet of information about judicial reappointments before the May 12 meeting of the Municipal and Minority Affairs Committee.
While the subject of Gonzales' pay dispute was clearly highlighted, Melton's report on Prewitt's was discreetly placed in the back of the packet. The memo went unnoticed until the word "confidential," which was stamped on its front, caught Blumer's attention.
"That hit me right between the eyes. I thought I could in no way support the reappointment," Blumer says. "It blows me away that the commission went ahead and recommended her in light of the way they went after Gonzales."
Loza adds that he doesn't believe Prewitt is telling the full truth about how she handled her daughter-in-law's speeding ticket.
"It's not so much that I think it's completely implausible that things happened the way she suggested," Loza says. "The problem was, she claimed there was no mistake made, and she was willing to do it again. It's reflective of an arrogance in her attitude."
In the wake of Prewitt's departure, council members will have to decide Gonzales' reappointment on the merits of his case alone.
"Since there was no judiciary malfeasance, I would hate to put a mark on a man's record just because of some technicality," says Lipscomb, who has changed his position on the matter. "If somebody's out there ripping off money, or has got their hand in the till, I could see it. To me, it's too easy to be ruined with a stroke of the pen."
In her one-page resignation letter, Prewitt did not admit to any wrongdoing. Instead, she thanked city officials for giving her the chance to serve the residents of Dallas and explained that a "medical situation" with her daughter is consuming the majority of her time.
"This trust and confidence you have placed in me over the years has been a humbling yet life-enriching experience," Prewitt wrote. "I will not forget the pleasure I have had working with the people of our City and will always have a place in my heart for my colleagues on the Dallas Municipal Court Bench.
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