Why do public corruption cases take so long? Convicted public servants remain free years after conviction

Publics claim they never see accountability; experts say process is complex

HOUSTON – We should start by saying the vast majority of public servants do indeed serve Houstonians. However, there are others who do otherwise, according to federal and state prosecutors.

In recent years, we have had high-ranking individuals working in Houston and Harris County arrested with some already convicted.

One case KPRC 2 Investigates has covered extensively is that of former City of Houston City Council Relations Director William-Paul Thomas. Thomas was convicted of conspiracy tied to cash bribes in the summer of 2022. His sentencing dates have been terminated five times, delayed for a new date. The next sentencing date is for the third week of September, but throughout this entire time, Thomas has been able to freely roll around town in his convertible Porsche.

There also is the case of former HISD Board of Education President Rhonda Skillern-Jones. Convicted two years ago this month for corruption, but instead of seeing a federal prison cell, she has seen vacations in Cabo San Lucas, Africa and Dubai.

KPRC 2 Investigates started asking questions in August as to why Skillern-Jones does not have a sentencing date. U.S. Attorney Alamdar Hamdani was unable to provide insight but did make one thing very clear.

“The message to Houstonians is this, public corruption will not be tolerated in this city or anywhere in the Southern District of Texas,” said Hamdani.

Earlier this month, Hamdani asked a federal judge to deny her latest passport request as Skillern-Jones had plans to travel abroad for a fourth time. The judge agreed.

KPRC 2 Legal Analyst Brian Wice recently shared his reason as to why Houstonians see delays.

“These cases are complicated and time-consuming, and you’ve got the best of the best defending these people. that is what accounts for the sometimes inexcusable delay in reaching critical mass,” said Wice.

More often than not according to former U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick, there is much more to an investigation.

“When it comes to federal cases, there is always something right below the surface. It’s like an iceberg. You only see a little bit of it, but everything else is going on underneath,” said Patrick, who also added, “When there is no obvious sentencing date on the horizon, it usually means that there is cooperation going on behind the scenes.”

Wice said delays are simply part of what can be a complex process that can be complex.

“When the prosecutors, particularly at the federal, want to flip cooperators on others, it is going to take time,” said Wice.

It’s not just sentencing. In the case of the three senior staffers out of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s Office, they are still awaiting a state trial. However, according to the district attorney’s office, it’s the attorneys for the defendants who have primarily filed the paperwork creating delays.

Wice added that the public interpretation of justice being rolled out slowly is the result of Houstonians believing the system works as portrayed by Hollywood.

“I think the problem is that there was a generation that was raised on ‘Law and Order’ that thought you could investigate, prosecute and convict someone in a public corruption case in 53 minutes with seven minutes for commercials. The reality obviously is radically different,” said Wice.

As for when someone may ultimately be held accountable and handed down a sentence?

According to former prosecutors that KPRC 2 Investigators spoke with, sometimes it depends on their testimony in a case that hasn’t been announced yet. Then once they testify in that case, it is only then that they will be sentenced. It’s all done to make sure that the individual cooperating does their job.

About the Author:

Journalistic bulldog focused on accountability and how government is spending your dollars. Husband to Wonder Woman, father to a pitcher and two Cavapoos. Prefers queso over salsa.