The top state jail official's penchant for transparency just might land him in one of the clinks he's supposed to oversee.
In an indictment that open government advocates call outrageous and that others believe is nothing more than retaliation, the Nueces County District Attorney charged Adan Muñoz, the executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, with two counts of misusing official information. The indictment alleges that Muñoz used his office to illegally release confidential information related to a suicide in the Nueces County Jail. Release of the information incensed Nueces County Sheriff Jim Kaelin, who told local reporters that the case was still under investigation and that the documents were not Muñoz's to release.
"The sheriff is just a crazy little bastard," says Muñoz's attorney, Rene Rodriguez. The indictment has nothing to do with Muñoz breaking any laws, Rodriguez insists, and instead is simply Kaelin retaliating against Muñoz because the jail standards commission keeps giving the Nueces County Jail — which Kaelin runs — failing grades on state inspections. "He’s trying to save face," Rodriguez says.
Kaelin did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, but Nueces County District Attorney Anna Jimenez dismisses the idea that the indictment was based on anything but the grand jury's belief that Muñoz committed a crime. "I'm all about everybody knowing and transparent government and all that good stuff," Jimenez says, "but there are procedures we have to follow."
The charges stem from a February suicide at the jail in Corpus Christi. Shortly after inmate Samuel Salazar hanged himself in his cell, an inspector from the jail standards commission paid the facility a visit. The inspector issued the jail a Notice of Noncompliance, citing the failure of jailers to completely fill out a mental screening form when Salazar was booked. Responding to open records requests, Muñoz provided copies of the screening form to reporters at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and the local ABC affiliate, which reported that the jail fell out of compliance because of the incomplete forms.
It was hardly the first time, though, that the Nueces County Jail failed to meet state standards. According to commission records, the jail has failed about 40 percent of its inspections over the last five years. Since September 2009, there have been five deaths at the jail — the same number of deaths that occurred in the same period of time at the Dallas County Jail, which houses eight times more people. The commission issued six noncompliance notices to Kaelin from September 2009 to April 2010. The most recent failure notice cited three violations, including jailers failing to notify the commission of an inmate death within 24 hours and jail officials not completing mental health and suicide screening forms.
The continuing jail problems are a painful political thorn for Kaelin, who became one of the county's few Republican elected officials in 2006. The former Department of Public Safety officer campaigned on a platform of turning around the ailing jail, which had performed so poorly that it lost a contract to house federal prisoners. "I am willing [to] take the microphone and say we have problems," Kaelin told the Caller-Times. “We cannot afford to lose the ability to house our own prisoners."
Despite the promises, problems have persisted. Kaelin has gone back and forth with the jail commission over the last year, sending letter after letter detailing efforts to fix violations at the facilities and requesting re-inspections, and the county has spent millions on facility upgrades. A few times, the jail has met standards and received a certificate of compliance, but more often, Nueces County received failing marks. Currently, the jail is in compliance.
This spring, after Muñoz released the screening form to reporters, Kaelin met with Donna Klaeger, chairwoman of the jail standards commission, other members of the commission and staff from Gov. Rick Perry's and Attorney General Greg Abbott's offices to express his concerns. In a subsequent letter, Klaeger told Kaelin that the commission and an attorney from Abbott's office reviewed open records laws and the documents in question. "The result of these reviews indicates that Mr. Muñoz has not violated the law," Klaeger wrote.
Nueces County District Attorney Jimenez says she didn't see that letter before the grand jury issued its indictment, and neither did the jurors. But she says it doesn't change much in her opinion, because it's from Muñoz's employer, who would be expected to defend him. Jimenez says she's asking the attorney general's office whether a formal opinion has been issued in the case. If so, she says, she'll take it back to the grand jury. If not, the case will proceed to trial.
The case against Muñoz, Jimenez says, has the elements of a criminal offense: A public servant released confidential information with the intent of doing harm or defrauding someone. Because the screening form contained mental and medical information about the inmate and because the incident was under investigation, Jimenez says Muñoz should have requested permission from the attorney general's office before releasing the documents. "The bottom line is there's a process to go through," she says. From her perspective, Muñoz's indictment had nothing to do with the local jail's inspection problems. "I wouldn’t know exactly what type of relationship there is been between the jail and the Jail Standards Commission," she says, adding that she has only read a few tidbits in the local paper. "We do the same thing we do with every case."
Rodriguez, Muñoz's attorney, says there was no violation of the law. When he released the documents he wasn't trying to harm anyone — only to follow open records laws that require disclosure of public information. Besides, Rodriguez asks, whom would he harm? "If it’s the dead guy, how did he get harmed and defrauded? And if it's the family … they’re not complaining about anything," he says. The whole ruckus is over Kaelin's frustration with the jail commission, Rodriguez contends. "He doesn’t get it right, and he keeps getting in trouble," Rodriguez says. "This guy is just nuts."
The indictment has open government advocates up in arms, too. Keith Elkins, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, calls the situation "outrageous and very alarming." He says it's unclear whether any of the information Muñoz released is actually confidential. And Kaelin told the Caller-Times last week that he didn't believe the release of the documents would impede the ongoing investigation of the suicide. What's more, he says, the indictment originates from the very sheriff whose facility is under investigation.
"There seems to be something else at stake here besides whether there is an investigation that will be hampered," Elkins says. "It just doesn’t pass the smell test."