This summer, Hilda Valadez, an attorney who has made a lot of money representing poor defendants, sued 12 local judges, every Bexar County commissioner, the county judge, the county auditor and a district court administrator.
Valadez accused them of defamation, breach of contract and other abuses. Her request for damages: $10 million.
But the lawsuit is likely a last gasp.
Last month, the accusations against the judges and the court administrator were dismissed. This week, Valadez was indicted on 46 felony counts, including a scheme stretching back years in which she allegedly forged the signatures of judges to obtain payments for legal services.
A year before the sheriff's office started investigating the forgeries, Valadez appeared on my radar.
In collaboration with WOAI-TV, some data-driven journalism revealed that local courts in 2010 were ignoring the Fair Defense Act, a state law requiring judges to appoint lawyers for poor defendants using a rotating list of attorneys, known as "the wheel."
Valadez loomed large in our investigation because she was earning much more in taxpayer money than any other attorney, raking in more than $403,000 on indigent defense in three years.
In the same time, the average attorney earned just $32,500.
Other lawyers were reaping an outsized share of taxpayer cash, a consequence of local courts' failure to use the wheel. But Valadez's uncanny command of county funds now seems rooted in something else: theft.
And this is not the first time she's been accused of stealing.
About five years ago, she was arrested at North Star Mall over a $325 pair of sunglasses.
According to a police report, an employee at Saks Fifth Avenue saw Valadez walk into the store, remove the price tag and sensor from a pair of sunglasses and walk out without paying.
She was charged with theft and later received deferred adjudication.
"I was exchanging a pair of sunglasses," she told me Friday.
Valadez also denied the new charges, which include theft by deception between $20,000 and $100,000 and forgery, both third-degree felonies; execution of a document by deception between $100,000 and $200,000, a second-degree felony; and tampering with a government record, a state jail felony.
If convicted, Valadez could face up to 20 years in prison.
The attorney, however, says she has conducted her own investigation of herself, and all signs point reassuringly to her innocence.
"I spent $500 on my own polygraph, and I passed it," she said. "I hired a forensic auditor myself. We went through many, many vouchers, and they all are fine."
Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed disagrees. After announcing the indictment this week, Reed assigned a few unflattering adjectives to Valadez, including "nonsterling" and "smarmy."
"I don't even know what those words mean," says Valadez, who claims Reed harbors a personal vendetta.
Valadez says the same thing in court filings about the court administrator she sued this summer, who removed her from the list to receive court appointments, she claims, "without good cause."
But casting Valadez from the wheel appears integral to fixing it.
If the allegations against her are true, then the courts' failure to use the appointment process properly allowed her to exploit it.
And Bexar County's systems are improving.
Last month, a follow-up review of the county by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission showed appointments at all levels of courts appear "fair, neutral and nondiscriminatory."
"Bexar County has made significant process," said Jim Bethke, executive director of the commission.
By Brian Chasnoff, Express-News columnist, email@example.com
Source: The San Antonio Express-News