Judge Recuses Himself From Keystone XL Protesters' Cases Over Conflict of Interest

A $65,000 bond for three young people arrested on misdemeanor charges sounded unusually high to us when we wrote about the Keystone XL protesters locked up in Smith County a week ago. Bail was halved Wednesday, but that was only after the presiding judge recused himself from the case over a conflict of interest. TransCanada, the pipeline company, paid Smith County Court at Law Judge Thomas Dunn some $40,000 for an easement across land he recently sold, according to a local criminal defense attorney who isn't involved in the case.

See also: - Bond Was Set Extra High for Keystone Pipeline Protesters, to Send Those Hippies a Message

Bobby Mims, a lawyer and member of the board of directors for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, tells Unfair Park he found out about the payment through his receptionist.

"My receptionist and her husband are young people and they wanted to buy property out in the country," Mims says. "They didn't know it was coming from Judge Dunn. They started building a house out there and all of a sudden she comes in and says the pipeline is coming through.

"Sure enough it showed an easement, and I found out Judge Dunn was paid in excess of $40,000 for an easement by the Keystone pipeline about a year and half earlier."

Dunn did not respond to a message as of this posting, but his recusal is evidence that it isn't all that difficult to find folks in East Texas who have been touched by the pipeline -- or profited from it.

Bond for Isabel Brooks, 20, Matt Almonte, 21, and Glen Collins, 25, was initially set at $65,000 for misdemeanor criminal trespassing, waste dumping and resisting arrest. Until December 3, the trio had clung to heavy concrete canisters wedged inside lengths of pipeline. Apart from Collins, who recently made bail, the other two have remained in jail ever since. Once Judge Floyd Getz replaced Dunn, bail was lowered to $20,000 and $30,000 for the other two. At a hearing yesterday, their attorney, Wes Volberding, who is taking the case pro bono, argued $65,000 was too much for two "rather impoverished young people." Getz's primary concern before cutting the bail amount was the absence of a mailing address for the two protesters, Volberding says.

"The chief difficulty I think he felt is they could not identify a place they could live upon release," he says. "They live out of state. They do not have a permanent home, and they had been living for the last four to six weeks in an encampment in Nacogdoches, and there's no address for that.

"That was an unusual circumstance and he felt like bail needed to be high to make sure they would appear at trial."

Volberding does not, however, believe the reduced bond signifies a softer approach by Smith County officials toward the protesters. The prosecutor, he tells Unfair Park, has taken a hard line against them. Two of the charges, he insists, are "curious." They resisted arrest by "simply [refusing] orders. The offense reports indicate they simply went limp." They dumped waste when they were arrested in a section of pipeline by "leaving behind concrete barrels and some food and snack wrappers. But they were arrested and couldn't remove any of it. And when their friends tried to remove it, police barred them from doing so."

This stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by Wood County. Protesters there have been charged with Class C misdemeanors and released on personal recognizance bonds.

Almonte and Brooks, Volberding says, are simply concerned about the threat the nearly 1,700-mile pipeline -- which will carry Canadian tar sands oil to Gulf Coast refiners -- may pose to East Texas aquifers and rivers.

"This is a conservative county with a high conviction rate. I think a reasonable jury, if they can look at it dispassionately, would find young, intelligent, perhaps idealistic people simply trying to make Smith County a better place," he says. "Why would any juror want to hammer a person like that and put them in jail at public expense?"

UPDATE: Isabel Brooks has been released on bond, according to a tweet from Tar Sands Blockade.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brantley Hargrove