Sheriff Who?

It was a stunning triumph. Lupe Valdez, a Latina lesbian who had toiled for decades as an obscure federal agent, won election in 2004 as the sheriff of Dallas County after a series of scandals dogged the incumbent Jim Bowles. Sprung from a family of migrant workers, the diminutive Democratic victor suddenly garnered nationwide attention at a time when voters across the country were overwhelmingly approving anti-gay referenda. Even The Guardian in London took notice of the "the unlikely sheriff in Bush's backyard."

But if, as former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said, campaigns are poetry--marked by inspirational stories and sweeping promises--the actual business of governing can be dreary, morbid prose. Less than a month into Valdez's tenure, Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher enlisted an outside consultant to report on the health conditions at the Dallas County jail. The county had just been served with a lawsuit filed by representatives of three mentally ill inmates who died or became gravely ill while incarcerated. The consultant, Dr. Michael Puisis, confirmed the county's worst fears: Both the Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail, and the jail's medical provider, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston (UTMB), are responsible for a chaotic system where ailing inmates routinely fail to receive even rudimentary care, often ignored until they're at the brink of death.

Puisis, who had served as the medical director for the Cook County Jail in Chicago, concluded that poorly trained guards continually failed to properly diagnose inmates when they first arrive at the facility. Lacking adequate policies and procedures, if not basic common sense, a harried medical staff neglected those who were clearly ailing. The consultant even chronicled one man who died after he did not receive any follow-up care for a variety of chronic illnesses. Referring to the overall system of health care at the jail, Puisis called it a form of "systematic incompetence."

Nobody could really blame this on the new sheriff. These were conditions that had existed for years. Still, following the release of the report, which has enormous legal implications for the county, officials at Parkland Memorial Hospital wanted to talk to Valdez. At the time, the hospital was in charge of monitoring UTMB, but as it tried to investigate the conditions that Puisis repeatedly called "dangerous," they found that Valdez's Sheriff's Department wasn't ready for prime time.

"The chaos and disarray of the SD is discouraging," Kristin Branam, Parkland's director of program contacts, wrote to Sharon Phillips, a hospital vice president, in an e-mail obtained by the Dallas Observer. "We might consider asking for an interview with the sheriff herself. I am told that she is refusing to see just about everybody."

Nearly one year later, U.S. Department of Justice investigators were interviewing the sheriff about health care at the jail. Sources say they were mostly concerned with the performance of UTMB; however, they felt that Valdez should have to answer for the plight of inmates in her custody. In the past, Valdez has directed pointed questions about jail health care to its medical provider, which is now Parkland. The Department of Justice has made it clear that the care of inmates at the jail is her responsibility, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

Nearly 18 months into her tenure as sheriff, Valdez has turned from an inspirational icon in the making into another public official ducking accountability. Averse to the limelight and meeting with reporters, local advocates and even her own employees, she remains a mystery. She may turn around her troubled department yet, but there's one thing we know for certain: Valdez is not the kind of hands-on, take-charge, dynamic leader an electorate typically chooses to run a troubled office. She speaks softly and doesn't carry much of a stick.

While Valdez inherited demoralized employees and a jail that had been under-funded and short-staffed for years, no one can point to what exactly she's done to improve her department. Under her watch, the jail has failed two more state inspections--one more than it had during the entire 19-year tenure of her predecessor. She also has displayed a propensity to slip into the background whenever her department endures a batch of bad headlines. Valdez doesn't attend key public meetings involving the department and hasn't given her feedback to county officials about the courts' and jail's woefully buggy computer system or its former medical provider, both of which affect her jail more than just about any factor. And while the jail's record of treating mentally ill inmates remains its most serious problem, Valdez has yet to meet with some of the city's most important mental health organizations.

By all accounts, Valdez is honest, hard-working and well-intentioned. She has good relationships with the county commissioners and surrounds herself with top-shelf managers. She may become the smart, effective reformer voters hoped they were getting when her election victory became a national story. But to some, it's as if it hasn't dawned on Valdez that--what do you know--she really is the sheriff of Dallas County.

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Matt Pulle
Contact: Matt Pulle