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By ED TIMMS AND JENNIFER EMILY STAFF WRITERS
Published: August 18, 2012 11:22 PM Updated: August 19, 2012 12:29 AM
Disgraced Precinct 1 Constable Derick Evans is being replaced by a former justice of the peace whose office repeatedly was the target of critical audits, complaints alleging questionable financial practices and criminal investigations. Cleo Steele, 67, a longtime political ally and former employer of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price — and Price’s anointed candidate for the interim constable position — also begins his tenure without ever having earned a peace officer license. The Dallas Morning News reviewed three decades of audits and other county documents and found dozens of complaints about financial operations in Steele’s JP court. Among those complaints: Four boxes containing more than a thousand uncashed checks were discovered in Steele’s court — including many that were more than a year old. Auditors could not find a record of receipts being issued for those checks, which totaled more than $100,000. Auditors found dozens of outstanding arrest warrants for defendants who’d already paid their fines or otherwise disposed of their cases, most of which had been transferred to Steele’s court. During the years that Price was Steele’s assistant, the JP court repeatedly was singled out by auditors reporting on problems that included unaccounted-for money and shoddy record-keeping. Steele’s office also was the target of several criminal investigations that did not result in charges. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who supported Steele’s appointment, said a full background check was conducted and “he came back clean.” The county’s human resources department and budget office also looked into the financial operations of Steele’s court, he said. “They found no malicious wrongdoing,” Jenkins said. Jenkins, a Democrat, said he knows Steele and “he’s a good man.” He said Steele’s experience as a JP is important because the duties for constables now heavily involve working with JP courts. “And so when you look at that, and you look at this person and they’ve got a 30-year track record in the office, I feel like he’s a good choice for the job,” Jenkins said. When contacted by The News, Dallas County Auditor Virginia Porter said she was not aware of anyone who looked at Steele’s audits while checking his background for the constable position.
“I can’t say that definitively,” she said. “But I think I would have heard, and I heard nothing.” Steele, who was one of the first black justices of the peace in Dallas County, has not responded to repeated requests for an interview by The News. Price, a Democrat, also could not be reached for comment. In the past, they have characterized the scrutiny of Steele’s JP court as racially motivated and complained about the audits. Responses to the audits also sometimes claimed that inadequate staffing or staff inexperience contributed to problems found in Steele’s court. Evans’ job came open after his conviction last month on a felony organized crime charge for operating an illegal raffle to raise campaign funds. Price also has close ties to Evans, who once was accused of forcing deputies to work security without pay at a Price charity event State District Judge Tracy Holmes, who presided over Evans’ trial, ordered his removal and selected Steele from a list of three candidates to take over the Precinct 1 Constable office on Monday. All but one member of the Commissioners Court — Republican Maurine Dickey — recommended Steele. Jenkins said Price “was the first person who broached his name.” One of the candidates did not live in Precinct 1, which Price represents. The third candidate, a former chief deputy in another constable’s office, was Dickey’s recommendation. Holmes told The News that she was assured by Jenkins that Steele and the two other candidates were “fully vetted.” Holmes, a Democrat, said she was not made aware of the financial problems in Steele’s JP court. Steele relieved Tracey Gulley, who has been running Evans’ office since her boss was convicted. Gulley faces similar charges and is scheduled to go on trial in November. Steele will remain in charge unless an appellate court overturns Evans’ conviction, allowing him to return to office, or until the next constable election in 2014. Steele must obtain a Texas peace officer license within 270 days to remain the constable. It is unusual, but not unheard of, for law enforcement officials in an elective position to start their tenures without a Texas license — as did Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. Dickey, who’s clashed frequently with Price, said she wished the process had been more open and included more input from the people served by the Precinct 1 constable office. “And of course that didn’t happen; it was all done behind closed doors,” she said. “I wish this county could get away from John Wiley Price,” she said. A long history Price is the target of a federal investigation alleging money laundering and influence peddling. He shares a history with Steele back to the 1970s. Steele once testified that he’d known Price since 1970, when he got out of law school and began working for the Dallas Legal Services Project, which provided assistance to low-income clients in civil matters. Price also worked for Steele and his law partner as a paralegal from 1972 until Steele became a JP in 1976. At that time, Price became an administrative assistant for the court. Price worked for Steele until he began serving as a county commissioner in 1984. After Price joined Steele’s JP staff, the two men regularly battled with commissioners, often claiming that the disputes were rooted in racism. Steele envisioned his night JP court as a “court of the people,” according to a 1979 Newsarticle. “We wanted black folks to have a black court,” he said, noting that about 70 percent of the prisoners he saw at night were black. Jon Sparling, a former prosecutor at the Dallas County district attorney’soffice, recalled the unusual work relationship between the two men. Price, Sparling said, frequently parked in Steele’s judicial parking spot and would sit on the bench when Steele didn’t show up for work.
“John Wiley Price had a stronger personality than Steele and was able to control him,” Sparling said. Sparling wasn’t surprised that Price pushed for Steele’s appointment as constable. “Steele allowed Price to usurp his bench,” he said. “Why shouldn’t Price return the favor?” Sparling got a closer look at Steele and Price when he was called upon to investigate allegations of criminal activity in the JP office. The investigations looked into allegations that pay affidavits for court-appointed attorneys were altered so they could get more money and that Price helped lower the bond for a drug defendant. And there was money missing from fines and fees. The investigations did not account for the missing money and apparently did not uncover evidence to support the allegation specifically against Price. The investigation into pay affidavits for court-appointed attorneys found evidence of falsified records, but did not result in any criminal action, The News reported. Legal troubles Steele also stood by his top assistant when Price faced his legal problems outside the JP court. In 1976, the year Steele took office as a JP, federal prosecutors alleged that Price had made a false statement when applying for a bank loan. Steele was one of the attorneys advising Price, according to court testimony. Price pleaded guilty to the offense but later claimed that he didn’t fully understand the charges. Steele’s onetime law partner testified that “because of our inexperience in the area of federal criminal law, my partner and I did not adequately advise our client …” An appellate court ordered a new trial, and the jury found Price not guilty. The federal case was but one of Price’s brushes with the law while he worked for Steele. In 1977, Price was arrested at the JP court on a Bell County traffic warrant. He was back to work a few hours later. About two years later, he was arrested for disorderly conduct after being accused of shooting a small dog with a pellet rifle and pointing the weapon at a neighbor. And in 1981, Price was accused of assaulting a Dallas attorney in Steele’s office, but a grand jury chose not to indict. Price continued to work for Steele. Steele once told The News that Price could be a political liability but was a good worker and trustworthy. Questions about how Steele ran the financial side of his office persisted throughout his JP career. In the 1970s, auditors found evidence of missing funds, criticized Steele’s office for failing to keep track of financial transactions and failing to make deposits of collected fees in a timely manner. For example, in 1977, auditors reported that in numerous misdemeanor cases, “we could find no record of the fines having been collected or arrest warrants having been issued.” Auditors looked at receipts from two months in 1980 and discovered that more than half had not been handled properly. In 1982, none of the receipts they selected from one month had been recorded properly. County authorities filed a $648.86 claim against Steele’s insurance bond in 1984 that “resulted from the failure of Judge Steele to collect the property fees” and “lost interest earnings for failure to make timely deposits.” An audit covering 1993-95 reported “of the receipts reviewed, 63 percent contained errors in the fees assessed/collected.” And Porter, the Dallas County auditor, warned Steele in August 1999 that her auditors had discovered an unusually large amount of undeposited checks and cash and could not find records of receipts being issued.
“The total … funds on hand was $104,838.58,” she wrote. “This is significantly more than counted at the previous cash count — $2,381.25 on 3/30/98.” Porter told Steele that the funds should be immediately deposited to an escrow account. “Losses that remain uncollectible are directly attributable to lack of due care by your staff,” she wrote. “This constitutes a valid claim against your official bond.” Audits continued to raise questions about financial practices in Steele’s court, right up until his retirement as a JP in 2006. Steele complained about audits in a 1977 News story. “Every time I look around, the auditor has his nose in my books,” Steele said. In the same article, Price called the audits “hogwash.” Over the years, Steele’s battles with the county sometimes have put him at odds with Price and even ended up in court. In 1994, for example, Steele lashed out at Price, accusing him of doing a poor job of protecting the interests of black constituents as county officials redrew precinct lines in response to a civil rights lawsuit. The redistricting map they agreed upon created a mostly Hispanic precinct. “We were devastated by the actions of Commissioner Price on this issue,” Steele said then. In 2001, Steele joined two other JPs in a federal lawsuit aimed at blocking a plan to reduce the number of JPs and constables in Dallas County. One of the attorneys representing the JPs was former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, who was convicted on federal bribery and extortion charges in 2009 and is serving an 18-year prison sentence. The lawsuit was dismissed within a few months. firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com CLEO STEELE Age: 67 Occupation: Lawyer Education: Under-graduate degree from the University of Oklahoma; law degree from Southern Methodist University School of Law. Employment: Worked with the Dallas Legal Services Project after being licensed as an attorney in 1970 and formed one of the first black law firms in the early 1970s. Also served as a Dallas associate municipal judge in the early 1970s. Dallas County justice of the Peace, 1976-2006. Returned to private practice after retiring as a JP. Activities: Served in senior positions with numerous civic and professional organizations, including as president of the J.L. Turner Legal Association and as chairman of a DISD ad hoc committee on institutional racism. Recipient of the Dallas Bar Association’s 2002 MLK Justice Award. Serves on the board of deacons and the board of trustees for Good Street Baptist Church, and also acts as the church’s attorney.
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