Two figures at the heart of the recent scandal in Beaumont ISD, who were often presented as emblems of the district’s lax financial controls and toxic personal politics by reform activists, have fired back against dozens of officials and reporters they say targeted them out of racial bias.
The last four years have been a particularly intense and litigious time even by Beaumont standards. A group of mostly white community leaders accused BISD’s first two black superintendents of running the district into the ground. The schools have lately seen federal investigations, a state takeover, the replacement of a superintendent and an entire school board, and prison time for former officials.
The district’s former purchasing officer is in federal prison for transferring school money to himself. A former high school booster club president was sentenced in June to a year in federal prison for using the club’s money as his personal debit account. And Calvin Walker, a contract electrician accused of overbilling the school district by at least $2 million, is scheduled to stand trial in early August.
This latest chapter comes just as the district seemed to be settling down after years of turmoil. It’s been 15 months since the FBI raided an administrator’s home, for instance.
In May, a new superintendent took over for the interim leader brought in by the state, and the state-appointed board of managers will be gone by next May, ending the state’s takeover. Bit by bit, vestiges of the previous era in BISD are disappearing. New superintendent John Frossard has promised to improve the schools by fostering cooperation in the community. There is much talk, particularly from those who’ve come out on top in the recent shakeup, of healing and leaving the past behind.
And then, earlier this month, came Calvin Walker’s lawsuit against… well, pretty much everybody.
Just ahead of his scheduled criminal trial in Jefferson County on August 3, Walker filed a lengthy complaint against 32 defendants, whom he accuses of joining in a complex conspiracy to destroy his reputation and his business. Among those named in Walker’s suit: the local electricians’ union, a host of school officials from both before and after the state’s takeover, state and federal prosecutors, and four news outlets.
Walker alleges that leaders of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers chapter sought vengeance because he refused to join the union, undercut union members on costs and started getting work from the school district. According to the complaint, former high-ranking school district officials Terry Ingram and Jane Kingsley parroted the union’s concerns about Walker at BISD meetings, drawing extra scrutiny to Walker’s work. The complaint alleges the school district maintained tougher standards for black contractors, but that Walker’s low bids made it impossible to award work contracts to anyone else without obviously discriminating — until, of course, his 37-count federal indictment on fraud charges.
Walker at one point faced the prospect of life in prison, but with help from Houston mega-attorney Dick DeGuerin (former clients include Tom DeLay, Robert Durst and David Koresh), his first trial ended in a mistrial. Walker later pleaded guilty to failing to pay income taxes. Now Walker faces state charges of fraud and money laundering related to his work for the school district, charges he’s currently fighting by claiming that yet another trial would amount to double jeopardy.
On Thursday, Walker was joined in the suit by Jessie Haynes, spokesperson and top adviser to former Superintendent Carrol Thomas. Haynes became a key player in the battle for BISD after tangling with a school board member as she tried to block him from a room in the district office. Haynes was convicted of “obstructing a public passageway,” while her defenders rallied for “Justice for Jessie.”
Giugi Carminati, the Houston attorney representing Haynes and Walker, said the common thread in their cases is that their success made them targets. She said Walker and Haynes are especially dramatic examples of a dynamic that’s harmed many other black residents in Beaumont over the years. “When they identify a black person that is in a position of power, or is being ‘uppity,’ or is being successful, they try and put them back in their place,” Carminati told the Observer. “You don’t have to scratch very deep to see that it’s a question of racial tension.”
Her clients’ reputations are so damaged now, she said, that Walker can’t find business — according to the suit, his company has gone from 15 employees to just two — and that Haynes can’t find work.
Prosecutors and school trustees were complicit in the conspiracy, and were driven more by personal vendettas than any actual wrongdoing, she claims. She says she has the emails and Facebook messages to prove it. The complaint quotes U.S. Attorney Malcolm Bales in an email to then-District Attorney Cory Crenshaw: “I have seen Calvin’s manifesto. His criminality is outstripped only by his hubris.”
In the complaint filed this week, Walker seeks at least $22 million for defamation, and he and Haynes are also asking for unspecified damages beyond that.
The complaint also claims that the Beaumont Enterprise, Beaumont Examiner, Watchdog.org and SETInvestigates.com, defamed Walker, particularly by reporting that Walker’s plea agreement included an admission that he over-billed the school district by millions of dollars.
Jerry Jordan, whose SETInvestigates.com was the first to report many of the twists in the unfolding BISD scandal, said he was in the awkward position earlier this month of breaking the story that he and 31 others had been sued. Jordan said that being a defendant in the suit also complicates his reporting on Walker’s upcoming criminal trial.
The details he reported on Walker’s plea deal came directly from a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he said. He was surprised by the suit, though, because Walker often returned his calls for comment on the stories he wrote. “I have no animosity toward Calvin, except damn dude, I just wish you wouldn’t have sued me,” Jordan said.
Other media outlets and other defendants contacted either declined to comment or have not yet responded to the Observer’s requests.