When former Dallas County Sheriff Jim Bowles made the last-minute decision to get in the race for his old job, it surprised almost everyone. After all, he left office under a cloud of suspicion and has been blamed by his successor for everything going wrong with the jail, and there is plenty going wrong there.
Just two weeks before he filed for the race, he was introducing sheriff's candidate Charlie Richmond at the Dallas County Republican Christmas Party. Bowles was the last person anyone expected to see scrambling to file for the March 4 primary, but Bowles is back and has some criticism for Sheriff Lupe Valdez. He has also pulled back the curtain on the accusations that ended his 20-year run as sheriff.
Bowles' unlikely comeback try began at that December 18 party at Prestonwood Country Club. After speaking to nearly 400 people that night, he received a standing ovation. People quickly came up to Bowles' table, where Richmond was sitting with his family, and began asking Bowles if he was considering running.
"I have a keen affinity for the department and the employees, and I want to help them get their heads back in the sun," Bowles says.
Bowles' late entry leaves him facing a number of obstacles. Lowell Cannaday, someone Bowles knows from their days in the Dallas Police Department, has secured most of the key endorsements, and his campaign has raised more than $150,000.
Bowles acknowledges that he doesn't have the time or opportunity to score comparable endorsements or raise a lot of cash, but he already has name recognition without the endorsements.
"Other people have to put out yard signs and mail out literature telling people who they are, what they've done and what they're gonna do 'cause nobody knows them. They know me," Bowles says.
Cannaday says he was surprised Bowles decided to run but stresses that it won't change his approach at all. He doesn't necessarily view Bowles as his biggest competition in the primary, saying he takes each one of his three competitors seriously. But his past relationship with Bowles certainly separates him from the pack.
"I kinda lay that aside," Cannaday says. "We're both just applying for the same job—nothing personal about it."
Bowles is at first circumspect when he's asked about Valdez's performance—"What's the next question?" he quickly counters. He went on to say, however, that Valdez doesn't understand the job and hasn't been present enough to do it well. Bowles says that when he was sheriff, he answered his own calls and made himself available to anyone who wished to see him.
"I was there more in any one month than she has been so far in three years," Bowles says. "She hasn't been available enough and doesn't seem to have the grasp of the task."
Valdez offers a simple reaction to Bowles entering the race. "It's a democracy," she says. "You can't tell anybody not to run." She laughs at his suggestion that she doesn't spend enough time at her job.
"I spend about 14 hours a day in this place. I don't know how much more time I could spend here," Valdez says.
Another obstacle for Bowles is that Valdez has put the blame for problems in the jail squarely on him, saying she inherited a mess from Bowles when she took over in 2005. Valdez cites inmate overpopulation, understaffing and poor maintenance as three major problems she has had to turn around.
"When I was in the military, the first thing they taught us was to go after the gushing wounds," Valdez says. "There were so many gushing wounds that we're barely at the point where we are starting to look at other things."
The elephant in the room for Bowles is the way he left office in 2004 under a suspicion for, among other things, taking bribes from businessman Jack Madera. Bowles describes the allegations against him as a "hellacious, vicious political conspiracy."
After The Dallas Morning News reported that Bowles received thousands of dollars worth of trips and meals from Madera before he was awarded a $20 million jail commissary contract, then-Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill appointed an independent prosecutor to investigate the relationship between the two men in October 2003.
Collin County Assistant District Attorney Chris Milner eventually filed five special grand jury indictments against Bowles, which devastated his chances in the GOP primary, which he lost to Danny Chandler. All five indictments were dismissed by then District Judge Karen Greene by April 2004.
Madera sold his company, Mid-States Services Inc., to John Sammons in February 1999. As a condition of the sale, Madera signed a three-year non-compete clause. During this time, Bowles says Madera worked as a public relations consultant for Sammons. He admits they went to lunch on several occasions and Madera paid for Bowles' meals, but Bowles says his relationship with Madera was professional, and he "never took a damned penny from him" as a bribe for any contract.
When Bowles first took over the jail from former Sheriff Don Byrd, Madera was handling the commissary, which sells inmates snacks, toiletries and other goods. Bowles said he asked Bob Knowles, his chief jailer at the time and current executive chief deputy with Tarrant County Sheriff's Office, if Madera had provided good service, and he was told Madera was outstanding.
It wasn't until Madera sold to Sammons that the accusations of bribery arose. When the non-compete clause between the two expired, Madera returned to Bowles to bid for the commissary contract as Mid-America Services Inc., joining Sammons and two other companies in the bidding.
Bowles says the decision to choose Madera was simple and had nothing to do with any bribes. Sammons was doing a poor job and the other two companies didn't meet his requirements. His three requirements were that the company provide cart service, have five years experience with a major jail and provide a computerized management service.
Two of the bidders offered bag service as opposed to cart service. Bag service involves officers taking requests, giving them to the contractor, the contractor delivering the items in paper bags, the officers sorting out the bags and delivering them to the inmates and then having to watch them open their bags. Cart service is when the contractor has employees take a cart with products around to the inmates—a much more efficient method.
This left Sammons and Madera. Bowles says Sammons ran the commissary so badly that had his contract not run out, he would have fired him. With a contract as important as the commissary, Bowles went with someone he knew could handle the job.
"If you want a calm jail, a happy jail, you don't screw [inmates] on food, you don't screw them on commissary and you don't screw them on visitations. You treat them square. That was my policy, and I did it," Bowles says. "I needed to get someone in there real quick to fix the commissary. He was the only person that could do it."
Bowles says an important part of running an efficient commissary involves going to the cells six days a week and rotating which cells the carts begin at so everyone gets an equal chance at "the early pickin's." It's also important for the carts to be fully stocked to ensure each inmate is offered the same products as the others.
Sammons ignored these requests, running his carts until they were empty and delivering to one side of the jail on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and the other side on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, Bowles claims. He says Sammons also let the commissary's computer system deteriorate and ran the carts the same route every day.
Bowles was also getting "complaints coming out the gazoo" about Sammons.
Sammons still runs Mid-States, which is based in Fort Worth and provides commissary items to jails in 38 states. He says he met Bowles just one time for approximately two minutes when his contract was about to expire. Sammons confirmed that Madera was working as a consultant for him, but says he was unaware of the lunches between Madera and Bowles.
Sammons also says he was the one who gave Madera's meal receipts to the Morning News, but he was unable to explain if they were for only Bowles' meals or other people's as well. He described the coverage by the paper as "extremely well-researched and accurate."
When asked about Bowles' claims about his problems running the commissary, Sammons says, "I don't have any recollection whatsoever." As for letting the computer systems go downhill, Sammons says, "I don't agree with that, but the man is welcome to his decision. Whatever he wants to say to justify his decision, that's fine with me."
Part of the controversy was that Madera's bid paid the county less for the contract than Sammons', but Bowles stresses that the commissary is not intended to produce revenue for the county. In addition, Madera installed nearly $1 million worth of new computer systems which, among other things, provided barcode readers and receipt printers to make the commissary more efficient.
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Bowles, a native Dallasite, wants to put 2004 behind him and focus on making noise in the primary, calling for a Reagan revolution and welcoming Democrats who feel abandoned by their party.
Bowles had a strained relationship with the Dallas County Commissioners Court, but he believes the commissioners are aware that they are part of the problem.
"I think that the reason why they're not working right now at flank speed to reconcile every problem as fast as possible is that they are hoping to get a sheriff in there who knows how to run a sheriff's department and who knows how to run a jail."
Bowles, Cannaday, Mesquite Police Lieutenant Charlie Richmond and Cockrell Hill Police Chief Catherine Smit face off in the Republican primary. Cannaday is considered the front-runner at this point, but Bowles is counting on his experience as sheriff and grassroots effort to push him over the top.