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Mike Surface

Eversole gets off easy

They did it all for these (Source: Wikipedia)

And so it ends.

The receiving line of well-wishers and smiling faces that came to life in the usually somber federal courtroom Wednesday was 10 years in the making.

Jerry Eversole, who fell from one of the highest perches in Harris County politics to land as an unemployed felon, shook hands, slapped backs and thanked supporters with deep sighs of relief: He was not going to prison.

The former Harris County Precinct 4 commissioner was sentenced Wednesday to three years of probation.

Eversole’s longtime friend and co-defendant, Mike Surface, also was sentenced by U.S. District Judge David Hittner to three years probation. Surface was fined $5,000.

[…]

Immediately after Hittner’s ruling, a jubilant Eversole hugged supporters and family members in the crowded courtroom.

“I’m very anxious to get the rest of my life started,” said Eversole, 68. He said dealing with the corruption trial “has been like towing an anchor.”

“We’re excited about waking up tomorrow and realizing I can go get a job – I can start doing things,” Eversole said. “I felt very useless the last few months.”

[…]

Sentencing guidelines had suggested both men faced six months of either incarceration or probation, or some combination of the two, as well as fines.

Both will be on probation for three years, during which time neither of the avid gun collectors will be able to buy or possess any of the antique Colt .45 pistols they amassed in combined collection worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Oh, the humanity. Whining works, kids. I don’t really have anything else to say about this.

Eversole and Surface whine for leniency

Stop, you’re breaking my heart.

Even after former Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole and real estate developer Michael Surface agreed to plea deals, their lawyers said prosecutors were trying to “criminalize” a 30-year friendship.

In letters filed Wednesday to the judge who will decide whether they will spend six months behind bars or on probation, the two spoke openly about the depth of their friendship and the deals that landed them in trouble.

“I’ve bought meals, paid for gas, bought him chaps and cowboy hats over the years among other things,” Eversole, 68, said. “We never kept a ledger.”

Both wrote of a friendship that began when Surface owned a mowing service and Eversole was president of the Humble Chamber of Commerce.

When Eversole first ran for commissioner 21 years ago, Surface was his unpaid campaign manager.

“He and I would meet at the Best Doughnuts in Humble at 5 a.m. to get coffee together and then would go to Metro Park and Rides to hand out information about me and my campaign for office,” Eversole said. “Mike and I remained close friends even as our lives and the world around us changed.”

It goes on and on from there. I personally think they should have skipped the letters and just done a video montage of how beautiful their friendship is, with a peppy single from the 60s as the soundtrack. Something like this, for example:

Okay, maybe without the romantic overtones, but you get the idea. It wouldn’t have been any less ridiculous, is all I’m saying.

Surface gets probation

Mike Surface, one of the developers implicated in the Jerry Eversole case and who pleaded guilty alongside Eversole to one count of filing a false income tax return, was given two years probation for his crime.

Prosecutors asked for a year of prison time, said Surface’s lawyer, Chip Lewis said. Department of Justice officials did not return a request for comment.

As part of his plea agreement, Surface will not be able to do business with the federal government, Harris County or the City of Houston for five years.

Seems awfully lenient to me, but whatever. All I can say is that if any government or elected official agrees to do business with him after those five years are up, it ought to trigger another investigation. Surface’s partner Andrew Schatte has yet to take a plea or go to trial. After what Eversole and Surface got, I don’t know why he wouldn’t seek a deal.

Eversole pleads out

Another saga comes to an end.

Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole pleaded guilty this morning in federal court to a felony charge of making a false statement to FBI agents.

The charge carries up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In exchange for the guilty plea and for Eversole’s announcement last week that he would resign from office, prosecutors dropped charges of conspiracy, bribery and two counts of filing false income tax statements.

The Department of Justice had alleged Eversole took nearly $100,000 in cash and gifts from co-defendant Mike Surface in exchange for steering lucrative county contracts to companies in which Surface had an interest.

A mistrial was declared in the case earlier this year following a hung jury. A retrial had been scheduled to begin next month. Throughout, Eversole had denied wrongdoing, and his attorneys have characterized the government’s corruption case as criminalizing a friendship.

“All the allegations by the government that he ever did anything improper in the conduct of his office were dismissed. Every single count, every single allegation that has to do with the performance of his office were dismissed today and they’re gone forever,” said Rusty Hardin, Eversole’s attorney. “There is nothing in his statement of facts that says he ever did anything in his office in return for anything or was influenced in any way.”

I suppose that means something, but whatever. All I can say is that it’s about time.

Surface also took a plea.

In a statement of facts read before the court, Surface admitted to giving Eversole gifts in an attempt to influence him. There was no such clause in Eversole’s statement of facts.

[…]

Surface pleaded guilty to one count of filing a false income tax return, which carries up to three years in prison and a $100,000 fine. In exchange, conspiracy and bribery charges were dropped.

U.S. District Judge David Hittner accepted Eversole and Surface’s guilty pleas at 10:35 a.m. A sentencing date has been set for Jan. 4, 2012.

Federal sentencing guidelines place the sentence at between zero and six months for both men, served in any combination of incarceration, probation or home confinement Hittner chooses, said Andy Drumheller, an attorney for Eversole.

As part of the pleas, Eversole is barred from seeking elected or appointed office for 10 years; Surface is barred from seeking contracts with the city of Houston and Harris County for five years.

Later Friday, Surface also pleaded guilty to making a false statement to federal agents in another public corruption trial; his lawyer Chip Lewis said the two pleas “are wired together.” Surface, along with codefendant Andrew Schatte, had been charged with conspiracy and mail fraud. Those charges against Surface have been dropped.

Good riddance and shame on both of them. We deserve better from our elected officials and those who do business with our government.

In other news, Judge Ed Emmett will announce Eversole’s successor on Monday morning. A list of potential recipients of the golden ticket are at that link. Whoever it is, I expect there’s a 100% chance he or she will face a contested primary next March. Nobody will have that much time to raise money, so it ought to be quite the scramble. Have sweet dreams over the weekend, y’all, because Monday all but one of you are going to wake up.

UPDATE: Robert Miller takes a guess at who the next Commissioner will be.

Eversole expected to take a plea

I don’t think this comes as a surprise to anyone.

Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, who on Monday announced his resignation from office, is expected to plead guilty to one count of making a false statement to FBI agents in a federal court Sept. 30, sources said Wednesday.

A document filed with the court Wednesday afternoon set a “re-arraignment” court date for Eversole and his codefendant Mike Surface to appear before U.S. District Judge David Hittner at 10 a.m. that Friday.

Eversole’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, Surface’s attorney, Chip Lewis, and Department of Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined comment.

“The fact that a re-arraignment has been set in this matter means he will be pleading guilty to the criminal information that was filed (Monday),” said former federal prosecutor Philip Hilder, who is not connected to the Eversole case.

“It is a confirmation that a plea deal has occurred and that a plea of guilty will be officially entered by the court to the charges contained in the criminal information.”

We’ll know soon enough. There was speculation that a plea was in the works from the beginning, so as I said this should be no surprise. It’s driven more by financial realities and risk aversion than any recognition of wrongdoing on Eversole’s part, but it all counts for the same in the end. It’s about time, that’s all I can really say.

Eversole and Surface to be tried together

There will be only one more trial relating to the Jerry Eversole case. We think, anyway.

Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole and developer Michael Surface, two longtime friends who exchanged more than $100,000 in trips and gifts, will be tried together for bribery in October, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge David Hittner agreed with federal prosecutors that two more three-week trials would strain witnesses and resources, according to the order. Hittner’s decision reversed an earlier ruling severing the two men’s cases so Eversole could get a speedy trial last month. That jury deadlocked after a three-week trial on all four counts of corruption.

[…]

“This is not good for Eversole,” said Geoffrey Corn, a professor at South Texas College of Law. “Because it results in an accumulation of evidence. The more defendants you have sitting in a courtroom, the worse it always looks.”

He noted that rejoining the cases is not surprising, and the original decision to separate is more unusual.

“Getting a severance motion granted is very, very difficult,” Corn said. “I think the reason the judge did it the first time was the timing of the trials was so disparate.”

Most of the first Eversole trial was about his friendship with Surface, so it’ll be interesting to see how the dynamic changes now that Surface will be there to respond as well. The main thing I’ll note here is that Commissioners Court will need to proceed with redistricting itself before it knows what Eversole’s fate is. I don’t know if their inclination is to draw a map that preserves a precinct for him or not. The point is they’ll have to make a choice instead of waiting to see if it will be made for them. Good luck with that.

Trying Eversole, take 2

The two sides in County Commissioner Jerry Eversole’s trial are planning for the sequel.

The biggest help to each side, seasoned trial lawyers said, are the jurors who sat through three weeks of testimony.

“I relied a lot on input from the jury,” former Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes said of his “few” hung juries. “That is really helpful because you could see whether you had particular personalities that caused the problem or whether evidence caused the problem.”

[…]

Jury foreman John Hopkins said the jury’s first vote, four days before a mistrial was declared, had four jurors solidly voting guilty.

Hopkins said he was “shocked” when Hardin rested without putting on a single witness, a scenario that is unlikely to happen again.

“Ultimately, I don’t think you’ll see the case presented that much differently from the government’s side,” said Geoffrey Corn, a professor at South Texas College of Law. “But from the defense, you might actually see a defense this time.”

Other lawyers agreed that Eversole’s defense team would probably present a case in the retrial.

“It was pretty gutsy for Rusty to rest right behind the government, but he can’t do that again,” said defense attorney Kent Schaffer. “You’ve got to revamp your case, because I guarantee they are revamping theirs.”

Will he put Eversole on the stand? That’s what everyone will be wondering. No word yet on when Eversole 2.0 will debut – there will be a conference “in the coming weeks” to decide when to go at it again. I’ll say this much, I do not expect this to be resolved by a plea bargain, so another trial will be on its way. On a related note, Rick Casey points out that with a slight alteration of the jury, Eversole might have gotten a stronger result. There’s a lot for each side to think about and plan for as they go forward, that’s for sure.

Hung jury for Eversole

It’s the one outcome guaranteed to ensure that nobody is happy.

Federal prosecutors plan to retry their corruption case against Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole after a judge today declared a hung jury in the three-week trial on charges that he accepted bribes to steer millions of dollars in contracts to a developer.

[…]

John Pearson, the lead federal prosecutor, said he respected the jury’s decision, but confirmed that the U.S. Attorney’s office will retry the case.

Eversole was charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of accepting a bribe and two counts of filing false income tax returns in 2003 and 2004.

A look at the jury’s votes on the charges against Eversole show how close he came to be convicted on at least two of the crimes.

On the conspiracy charge, five jurors found him guilty; seven not guilty.

On the bribery charge, 10 found him guilty; two not guilty.

On one of the false tax return charges, 10 ruled guilty; two not guilty. On the second charge, seven found him guilty; five not guilty.

Today’s mistrial marks the second time the county commissioner has avoided a conviction on criminal charges lodged against him.

I’m not surprised the feds will take another crack at him – they did come pretty close. I wonder if Eversole will be as insistent on getting the trial done in a speedy manner as before. One way or the other, we’ll have him to kick around for awhile longer.

Eversole rests his case without presenting one

You have to admire the guts, if nothing else.

In a move even his attorneys acknowledged was risky, Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole’s defense team rested Wednesday without calling a single witness after prosecutors ended more than two weeks of testimony alleging that he took bribes to steer real estate contracts to a developer.

[…]

“They’ve never shown any connection between the things Jerry and Michael Surface did together and any of Jerry’s official actions,” said defense lawyer Rusty Hardin. “The issue has always been: Did the people have a pre-existing relationship before the thing of value was given and the answer with Jerry and Mike Surface is that, clearly, they did.”

Hardin said it was the first time in his 37-year career that he has rested without putting on any defense.

“It’s the measure of two things: One is how much I hope I’m right and haven’t messed up, and the other is how certain I am they haven’t proved a case,” Hardin said. “If we’re wrong, we’ll find out when the jury comes back.”

Jurors are expected to return Friday for closing arguments. To find Eversole guilty, they will have to decide he intended to take the gifts as a bribe.

The gifts in question often ran into five figures. We should all have friends like Mike Surface. I have no clue how this will turn out, I’m just looking forward to seeing it.

Jury selection begins in Eversole trial

Get your popcorn popper fired up.

Jury selection begins this morning in the trial of Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole, who stands accused of accepting bribes from a friend and developer to whom he allegedly steered county contracts and appointments.

The trial, which Eversole demanded start as early as possible after his Dec. 21 indictment, could mark the beginning of the end of a more than three-year corruption investigation that has worn on the six-term commissioner and saddled him with scandal.

Or it could be the start of a lengthy legal battle, with up to 21 years in prison, $700,000 in fines and his political office at stake.

“These next five weeks are going to be very, very difficult, but I feel wonderful, I really do,” Eversole said. “My wife and I are optimistic. The main thing is, it’s started, and it’s going be over. This has been four years of our lives.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. The trial is starting a little later than we originally thought it would, but it is now officially on. Anyone want to take a guess as to what will happen? Swamplot has more.

Eversole’s trial set for February 22

Indicted County Commissioner Jerry Eversole got his wish for a speedy trial.

Eversole’s jury trial is scheduled for Feb. 22.

Thursday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge David Hittner is mixed news for the Eversole camp. Eversole’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, said in court this month that he repeatedly had counseled his client against a speedy trial because of the risk that his defense team would not be as prepared as it should be.

Hardin even had Eversole stand during a January hearing and asked him if he wanted to proceed quickly despite that risk, to which Eversole replied, “Absolutely.”

Eversole has said he wants to get the trial out of the way so he can get back to commissionering. You have to admire the confidence, I’ll say that much for him.

His co-defendant Michael Surface also got his wish:

Surface’s attorneys asked Hittner for a delay until October. Hittner has also granted that request.

Chip Lewis, an attorney for Surface, said he now will have adequate time to prepare his client’s defense. He also said the severance ruling was correct.

“All of these charges were very well-publicized before the indictment,” Lewis said. “The electorate saw fit to re-elect (Eversole). He is eager to illustrate his innocence and recognize that those voters’ confidence in him is well placed.”

Well, he was unopposed. And in the environment we just experienced, in the most Republican-friendly precinct in the county, he’d have beaten anyone who had opposed him by at least 30 points. So I don’t know that I’d draw too much of an inference from that.

A brief history of Houston-based political corruption

Nice overview of the political crime scene.

Houston’s political landscape is littered with careers wrecked or damaged by allegations of wrongdoing, and for watchers of the political scene, the sight of [County Commissioner Jerry] Eversole in cuffs likely rekindled memories of fabled transgressors of yore.

“Brilab,” Sharpstown, former City Councilman Ben Reyes and former County Commissioner Bob Eckels — all conjure images of the fallibility of politicians under temptation.

Rice University political science chairman Mark Jones attributed some of the corruption that has tainted local politics to the “freewheeling culture” that pervades the city and state. There is such interaction between businessmen and politicians, he said, that it does not seem strange when an elected official is treated to dinner or lunch.

“Then golf,” Jones said. “Then a luxury suite at the game. Then paying off a mortgage. … It’s a slippery slope.”

I should note that the Bob Eckels mentioned above is not the County Judge that preceded Ed Emmett, but his father. Most of the names and cases cited in this story will be familiar to anyone who’s lived around here for awhile, but it’s a good refresher anyway.

The story was of course inspired by the recent woes of Jerry Eversole, to which Rick Casey added a nicely stinging assessment of Eversole’s claim that the feds were criminalizing his friendship with Mike Surface.

Eversole’s attorney, Rusty Hardin, says, “It is not against the law to be friends (or) to do mutual things on behalf of friends.”

They’re right. Which makes me blue.

My friends are nice guys and gals, mainly.

But they never take me on expense-paid golfing trips to Arizona and New Mexico. Or to Las Vegas. Or South Carolina. Or San Antonio. Or Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. Or Reno.

Nor do my friends buy me thousands of dollars worth of guns.

And the last time I bought a house, not a single friend gave me a cashier’s check for $63,000 to help pay for it.

What’s more, none of my friends chipped in $27,000 for the landscaping.

I can’t remember the last time a friend bought me a thousand-dollar suit.

It’s my fault, of course. I’m not that good a friend to them.

I’m not in a position to vote for multimillion dollar contracts for them, or to appoint them to sports authority boards and such.

Ouch.

Trying Eversole

The Chron wonders if the freshly-indicted Jerry Eversole can beat the rap.

That will depend on whether federal prosecutors can convince a jury that the gifts Surface gave Eversole and the actions the commissioner took that benefited Surface constitute conspiracy and bribery. The burden is on the prosecution to prove what legal observers variously call “a criminal state of mind” or “improper purpose.” In other words, that Eversole and Surface made a deal.

All the while, if Tuesday’s courthouse press conference pronouncements foreshadow a legal strategy, defense attorneys Rusty Hardin and Chip Lewis will be telling jurors that Eversole and Surface were motivated by affection, not avarice, and accusing the government of “criminalizing a 30-year friendship.”

“Bribery can be a little tricky to prove because it requires proof of a quid pro quo agreement,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. “It’s not enough to prove gifts on day one and then something that the public official does on day two. There has to be proof of that agreement.”

Defense attorney Dick DeGuerin sees a high bar to clear: “Gifts between personal friends, even if one is a public official that deals with a business that a friend has are not only permissible, they’re completely lawful. Tying any gift to any specific action is another problem that I see.”

I’m sure all of that is true. I can’t help but think, however, that many people (myself included) had spoken about how hard it would be for the prosecution to convict Tom DeLay without any direct evidence. We know how that turned out. I know this isn’t how it’s supposed to work, but I have a feeling that if the government has a decent circumstantial case, a jury isn’t going to give a known miscreant like Eversole much benefit of the doubt. We’ll see how it goes.

Eversole indicted

This has been so long in coming I was beginning to wonder if it would ever arrive.

Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and income tax charges today.

Eversole is charged with accepting a bribe from developer and former Harris County facilities director Mike Surface. Details of the alleged bribe were not immediately available.

[…]

The indictments were handed down Monday, but only were unsealed in Johnson’s courtroom today.

“This is the federal government criminalizing a 30-year friendship,” Surface defense attorney Chip Lewis said outside the federal courthouse before the hearing.

Asked earlier today if his client would turn himself in to authorities, Eversole’s defense attorney Rusty Hardin replied, “He’s going to do whatever the government asks him to do, except admit he committed a crime, which he hasn’t committed.”

Surface already was under federal indictment on conspiracy charges, accused along with his business partner, Andrew Schatte, of giving gifts to Monique McGilbra, former director of the city’s Building Services Department to win contracts to build the city’s $53 million 911 call center and a $20 million fire station. McGilbra pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal prosecutors, who allege Schatte and Surface gave her gifts including the use of a condo in California, $1,000, and a $40,000 consultant job for her boyfriend.

Eversole spoke about a looming federal indictment two years ago, though there were signs of it nearly a year earlier than that. Mike Surface was ousted from his position almost exactly three years ago, but wasn’t indicted till later. Several people were openly looking at Eversole’s seat on the Court, on the assumption that he’d quietly ride off into the sunset and await that knock on the door, when he surprisingly announced a re-election bid, which chased them all off. The assumption then had been that he’d resign after being re-elected so a successor could be appointed and given a good head start on fundraising before needing to run for the seat. I guess that part is still operative. Maybe he can bunk with Tom DeLay in the pokey. John and Juanita have more.

UPDATE: John has a timeline of Eversole’s misdeeds.