Day One in Court of Inquiry

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Day One is done in the court of inquiry called for by Judge Rick Davis. At issue is whether Assistant District Attorney Shane Phelps abused his power over a grand jury extended by Davis and investigating DA Bill Turner.

On Wednesday, one of Turner's biggest rivals was first on the stand to describe what he dug up, and what he wanted the Davis grand jury to investigate. Attorney Patrick Meece described how in 2004, he stumbled upon documents he said showed a cover-up of an illegal campaign contribution from Matthews Group Incorporated to Bill Turner. Meece said he had lost his wedding ring and happened to find the documents as he searched the Galleria Village building's trash pods. Both Meece's and Matthews' offices are in that building.

Meece was running against Turner for the DA's office, an election Meece lost handily. Turner would later file paperwork admitting and correcting the nearly $6,300 error, and he was cleared by a state commission. But Meece believes an attempted cover-up is evidence of an abuse of power by Turner, and that he yields too much swing over too many people, including Brazos County grand juries. He repeatedly cited that Turner told him four years ago that he (Turner) controls the grand juries.

Meece also said he and The Matthews Group had an oral agreement for the corporation to do work for his campaign, including advertising. But Drew Matthews began working for Turner, an agreement he told Meece's mother (and a worker at his office) that he had vowed a decade earlier to work for Turner should he have an opponent in the election. Meece does not believe that to be the case. The Matthews Group did do work for Meece in his failed run for the then-31st Congressional District.

Meece was on the stand the longest, and attorneys were regularly frustrated by his answers, which weren't always to the liking of the attorneys with what they believed were specific questions. Meece also seemed to have trouble remembering the timeline of events. At the end of his testimony, the appointed attorney pro tem, Buck Files, questioned the photographic memory Meece said he had during a pre-trial interview.

Meece had taken the documents he found in the garbage to grand jury foreperson Amanda Short, who testified next. Short asked for and got her grand jury extended by Davis past its September 2005 end date despite grand jurors knowing Turner was a subject of the extension, and a vast majority saying they didn't want to get into a political tussle. Nonetheless, Short went ahead and pushed for the extention. She said she only told fellow juror W.P. Scamardo about the details of the Meece-discovered documents. Other jurors only knew Turner was the subject, and not the substance of the allegations.

On December 1, 2005, the grand jury met and decided to take no action. Short presented the documents from Meece, and again, the vast majority of jurors said they wanted nothing to do with a Turner-Meece political battle.

Short and two other testifying grand jurors, Cassandra Taylor and Mike Ruesink, said the minds of the grand jurors were made up on Turner before the group placed a call to Shane Phelps. Their questions to him, they said, were on unrelated cases. But Phelps, they say, began asking if the jury was investigating Bill Turner. Phelps became a bit more animated towards the jurors, though not angry, they said. Juror Ruesink said Short hung up on Phelps near the end.

The testifying jurors said they were not intimidated in their choices by media, who had been tipped off to their supposedly secret meeting and were outside their Galleria Village room. They each said the media, Phelps and Turner did not influence their decisions.

In another detail of note, juror Cassandra Taylor was asked to provide an affidavit by Judge Davis for this court of inquiry, one she dictated to him, and one which she said was exaggerated upon further review. In requesting an affidavit from her, Taylor said Davis conducted what amounted to an interview, taking down the information she told him over the phone.

When the affidavit was taken to Taylor for her signature, the former grand juror was at work teaching a class. She said she did not have time to fully review the affidavit, and signed off on it after reading a few paragraphs. She said there were words she wishes she would have read and changed, including intimidated by Phelps.

Though he was originally thought to be testifying Wednesday evening, Judge Davis did not take the stand. Court resumed Thursday at 8:30am.

The scope of the court of inquiry is on Phelps at this point, though visiting Judge Cynthia Stevens Kent has the ability to expand it as she sees fit.