TYC Sex Scandal Cover-up Widens
A disciplinary report confirming misconduct by former West Texas State School Assistant Superintendent Ray Brookins was altered with the apparent approval of Texas Youth Commission Inspector General Ray Worsham shortly after Brookins was given a promotion, documents obtained by the Observer show.
Brookins is one of two men accused in a Texas Rangers report of allegedly sexually abusing students at the troubled youth correctional facility in Pyote, a rural town west of Odessa. The Youth Commission’s failure to detect the abuse, along with allegations of a subsequent cover-up, has thrown the agency into turmoil in the three weeks since the Observer broke the story. The commission announced Friday that Worsham was the most recent high-ranking employee at the agency to be suspended after allegations arose that he was involved in “unauthorized redacting” of documents. The agency did not say which documents Worsham is suspected of altering. In the last three weeks, however, the question of who made changes to a key internal review of the agency’s handling of the crisis at Pyote has been a focus of speculation. The review, which was completed in the summer of 2005, appears to have been altered to deflect blame from senior agency staff in Austin, the Observer and other publications have reported. New, previously unreleased documents now show that Worsham, the top Austin official in charge of the agency’s system for investigating abuse, may have been covering for Brookins for much longer.
On September 15, 2004, an agency inspector named Lewis Witherspoon was assigned to investigate a student complaint against Brookins, then the assistant superintendent at Pyote, after a caseworker overheard a student telling his mother on the phone that he did not appreciate Brookins “feeling all over him,” agency records show. According to a report filed by Witherspoon on October 25, 2004, the student complained that Brookins had been watching him in the shower, an allegation confirmed by a correctional officer. Shortly thereafter, the student complained, Brookins entered his dorm after hours, approached the desk at which he was seated, and put his leg up on the desk so his crotch was in the boy’s face. When he tried to move back, the youth alleged, Brookins held him by the shoulders. This went on for several minutes and was witnessed by a second student and a correctional officer, who thought it egregious enough to note it in his official log, according to Witherspoon’s report. A second officer told Witherspoon he did not see Brookins do anything improper while he was in the room. In his official findings, Witherspoon determined the incident did not rise to the level of sexual abuse, but he did confirm that Brookins had been guilty of “unprofessional conduct.” Witherspoon’s findings read in part: “The witnesses stated Mr. Brookins knowingly touched youth [NAME REDACTED], placed his crotch in [NAME REDACTED] face and would not release him. … There was no reason for the act to happen. … Whether it was friendly touching, rubbing, or his crotch in the youth’s face, it was intentional and unwanted. Clearly the act alarmed the youth because of the position Mr. Brookins placed his leg and crotch while conversing with Youth [NAME REDACTED]. … Youth [NAME REDACTED] was not in a position to address the situation properly because of Mr. Brookins [sic] title.”
Before Witherspoon could file his report, the superintendent of the school left on extended medical leave, and Brookins was promoted to acting superintendent on October 8, effectively placing him in charge of the entire facility. This move was approved by Lydia Barnard, director of juvenile corrections in Austin, agency documents show, even though Witherspoon’s investigation of Brookins was still ongoing. Brookins had been in his new post for roughly two weeks when Witherspoon filed his report on October 25, prompting a potentially embarrassing situation for everyone involved. Perhaps as a result, Witherspoon’s initial finding was overruled by Deputy Inspector General Ron McLeod, according to an e-mail from McLeod to his supervisor, Ray Worsham. In the e-mail, obtained by the Observer, McLeod told Worsham: “The investigator did not confirm for abuse as Mr. Brookin’s [sic] actions did not meet [the] criteria. However, he confirmed for unprofessional conduct. Here is how I would like to handle this. I have this case for closing now. I am going to close this case unconfirmed for abuse only (and not reflect a policy violation).” In other words, McLeod decided to allow Witherspoon’s failure to confirm sexual abuse to stand, but to remove any reference to unprofessional conduct from Witherspoon’s findings. In a second, much shorter, version of the report on the incident, obtained by the Observer, there is no mention of Witherspoon’s finding on unprofessional conduct. Brookins’ official disciplinary file, agency records show, reflects merely an unconfirmed allegation of sexual abuse relating to this incident. The unprofessional conduct charge does not appear in the file at all.
It is unclear whether Witherspoon, who is no longer with the agency, knew his report had been altered. Reached by the Observer, he declined to comment on the incident. According to a source close to the Pyote investigation who asked not to be named, allegations have been made that high-ranking TYC officials in Austin sometimes changed investigation reports on their own accord, preserving only the signature page from an original report to make the edited version appear to have been approved by the report’s author. In fact, the signature page of the second version of Witherspoon’s report on Brookins does appear to be identical to the last page of Witherspoon’s first report, right down to the date: October 25, 2004. Yet McLeod’s e-mail to Worsham outlining his proposed changes to the report was not sent until November 3. If Witherspoon had in fact signed off on the changes to his report, why was his signature dated nine days before the changes were approved?
Neither Ray Worsham nor Ron McLeod could be reached for comment. In his e-mail to Worsham, McLeod did not say why he wanted to change Witherspoon’s findings. He gave no reason for questioning Witherspoon’s interpretation of the incident. Yet Worsham apparently allowed McLeod’s decision to overrule Witherspoon to stand. McLeod also noted in his e-mail that the student had filed two previous grievances on the incident that were not registered in the agency’s official grievance-tracking system, a telling detail in light of events that would subsequently unfold. (An internal agency review later revealed that Brookins had improper access to the student grievance box.) McLeod suggested that the student’s original grievances be refiled and sent up the chain of command to director of juvenile corrections Lydia Barnard for future investigation. “I think this is a prudent course of action to take,” McLeod wrote. There is no record that any further investigation occurred, though Brookins remained in charge of the facility for another three months.
Contributing Observer writer Nate Blakeslee is a senior editor at Texas Monthly. His book Tulia is out in paperback from PublicAffairs.