The Great Texas Prison Mess
During the gargantuan buildup of the Texas Prison System, everyone wanted in on the action—even Andy Collins, the boss himself. Here’s how greed, fear, and VitaPro produced the state’s costliest scandal.
“IT WAS THE STUPIDEST THING THE STATE of Texas has ever done,” Andy Collins said about his crowning achievement, his oversight of the greatest expansion of prison beds in the history of the free world. “The public was absolutely hoodwinked into thinking that the only way the crime problem could ever be solved was prosecution and incarceration. We should’ve been interceding at an earlier age, dealing with these kids before they ever became crooks. But instead, we’re just taking juveniles and feeding them directly into the system. I mean, look who was behind it all. Prosecutors, cops, politicians—all of them with a self-serving agenda.
“And the media,” Collins declared as he leaned over the patio table at his suburban home just north of Houston, delivering the accusation with a martyr’s relish. “The goddam media did as much as anyone to build all those prisons because they fanned the flames of public hysteria. The issue of crime has become entertainment. Turn on the TV. Cops. Rescue 911. That kind of crap.”
As recently as last December, Collins had been the most powerful bureaucrat in Texas, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). Now it was March, and with news of scandal breaking all around him, his brief second career as a prison consultant was in shambles. By all rights he should have been a basket case. But here he was, wearing the standard yuppie regalia of khakis, loafers, and tortoiseshell glasses, puffing appreciatively on a long cigar, and sipping at a single-malt Scotch while his dachshund yapped away in the back yard and two of his daughters appeared on the patio to hit up their dad for movie money. The tableau was eerily serene; the 45-year-old Midland native with the well-padded cheeks and preadolescent grin was one hell of a lot tougher than he looked. He was placing calls to headhunters about job opportunities that had little to do with the way he had spent the past 23 years of his life, and former subordinates in Huntsville were now trashing him in the papers. And yet Andy Collins had not lost an ounce of his old charm and could still downshift from scholarly correctional minutiae to Bubba banter with the ease of a bona fide political master.
“And now,” he said, his laughter both sour and triumphant, “now we’re worried about the aftertaste of VitaPro! People were willing to feed these sumbitches dog food! And now they’re worried about an inmate’s aftertaste.”
But VitaPro, the soybean-based powder that Texas prisons have been using as a meat substitute, had nothing on the bitter aftertaste of irony that so bedevils Collins nowadays. He stood center stage as the state carried out a frantic buildup that transformed a once-provincial agency centered in rural East Texas into a mighty bureaucracy with outposts in 72 towns—the biggest prison system concocted by any free society in history. From 1990 to 1995, the TDCJ’s annual operating budget ballooned from $700 million to $2.2 billion. All of a sudden, the gloomy prison business was the hottest thing going, and money grabbers poured in from all over North America to get in on the action. Private-prison operators reaped more profits in Texas than anywhere else in the nation. Construction firms and subcontractors raked in hundreds of millions of dollars. Vendors great and small, proffering a myriad of esoteric wares—state-of-the-art mousetraps, law journals for prison libraries, grease trap-cleaning systems, taut-wire intrusion-detector fences, and, yes, VitaPro—paid handsome fees to self-styled “corrections consultants” or to lobbyists who would dispense campaign contributions wherever influence could be peddled. Even cities got in on the act by competing for the new state jails that might bring jobs and economic salvation; among the winners were Bonham, Dalhart, Raymondville, and Henderson—towns so removed from major crime centers that the goal of keeping inmates near their communities was negated. The Texas prison expansion became a feeding frenzy, and the unenviable task of overseeing it fell to Andy Collins. Eventually it began to dawn on him that there had to be a better way to make a living—and that way, of course, was all around him.
The story of how Andy Collins set himself up to make money as a consultant for VitaPro and other businesses to which he had doled out lucrative contracts began to unravel in early January, just four days after Collins officially left the TDCJ to become a consultant. Law enforcement officials had arrested a man named Patrick Graham for allegedly accepting money in exchange for trying to use his influence to spring a TDCJ inmate. In Graham’s wallet was a business card identifying him as a broker for VitaPro, a company that had been awarded a $33.7 million contract by Collins six months earlier. But Graham had a more ominous link to the former TDCJ director: He was Collins’ brand-new business partner. In the ensuing weeks, reporters found other contracts Collins had tendered without the approval of the appointed board that oversees the TDCJ. What has emerged is the tawdriest government spectacle since the Sharpstown scandal 25 years ago. Governor George W. Bush has enlisted the services of the Texas Rangers and the FBI to investigate what he has described as “sweetheart contracts”—implying that Collins may have benefited illegally from such deals. Though Collins has not yet been formally accused of breaking any laws, that may say more about the wording of the laws than the integrity of the ex-director.
But in the rush to judge Andy Collins, the media and the politicians have failed to judge his accomplices in the great prison scandal: themselves. So eager were they to sate the public’s bloodlust for locking up criminals and throwing away the key that they helped create a climate of hysteria in which corruption could flourish. The dust from the prison expansion has now settled, and we are left with a sorry mess indeed. The state prison system, which before the buildup was so overcrowded that it had to turn inmates loose after only a few months behind bars, now has 146,000 prison beds but only 129,000 inmates. Eight new prisons have been built but remain closed, for the simple reason that we have no use for them. For that matter, the agency has a warehouse full of VitaPro that it cannot sell and a state-of-the-art meat-packing facility in Amarillo that sat dormant for half a year. To fill empty classrooms, it has “pre-release” classes for inmates who are on their way in as well as on their way out and substance-abuse courses for inmates who have already taken such courses. The TDCJ steadfastly maintains that the empty prisons will be full within a year, but its past record of predicting its future needs has been poor and, anyway, the TDCJ’s argument misses the larger problem: While our public schools have gone to seed and state programs for the elderly have dwindled to near-nothingness, the prison system has accumulated a wasteful embarrassment of riches. Is this what Texans wanted?
Exploiting the cloud cover of “urgency,” prisons were built poorly and at an exorbitant cost. Some 12,000 “emergency beds” were thrown together in 180 days at the height of the hysteria in late 1994. Those particular prison units have a life expectancy of about twenty years, as opposed to the fifty-to-seventy-year life expectancy of the standard TDCJ prison; they are nothing more than minimum-security warehouses, and yet they carry the price tag of maximum-security prisons. Construction of the $10.3 million Ama-rillo meat-packing plant was also deemed for some strange reason an “emergency” back in 1994, a decision that cost the taxpayers probably an extra $1 million even though the facility was built partly using free inmate labor and even though it still lacks essential (and expensive) items like grease traps and bar screens. The TDCJ, according to its own internal figures, also spent $3.3 million more than was necessary to build facilities containing thousands of beds for substance-abuse treatment, which state officials had decided was an urgent need—only to be told later that many of these beds weren’t needed after all. (The TDCJ is now spending even more money reconfiguring those beds into something it can actually use.) And let us not forget the six Mode II (county-run) private prisons that TDCJ awarded to high bidders in early 1994, an expenses-be-damned approach then justified by the belief that the treatment programs offered by the private companies were urgently needed. Two of those prisons sit vacant today, and the prison system may ultimately convert all six into standard facilities—which of course will cost more money to accomplish. Beneath this statewide fiasco lurks not merely Collins, but an entire culture of loose money and looser ethics—a culture, in other words, whose most enthusiastic participants exhibited a moral compass not unlike that of the state’s sleaziest inmates.
THE EAST TEXAS TOWN OF HUNTSVILLE is not much different today than it was when James Anthum “Andy” Collins, a dough-faced college kid of nineteen, transferred from the University of Mississippi to Sam Houston State University in the fall of 1970. Huntsville remains the company town of the Texas prison system, which provides more than twice as many jobs (5,219) to Walker County as Sam Houston State, the next biggest employer and itself a participant in the field of criminology. Thanks to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the town of 27,142 (not including the 7,450 inmates housed in Huntsville) is recession-proof and demographically blessed by East Texas standards, its restaurants and bars packed nightly with accountants, lawyers, and other well-educated administrative officials on the TDCJ payroll. It’s hard to find a person in Huntsville who doesn’t have at least an indirect affiliation with the prison system, as local attorneys are reminded whenever they ferret through a jury pool. Walker County farmers, hardware store retailers, and gas station operators owe their livelihoods to the TDCJ—all for the small price of seeing busloads of men in white rumble through their streets and enduring the harsh lights of the Walls, Wynne, and Holliday units that pierce the blanket of evening.
Isolated from the media and the Legislature, the prison system carries on its activities with regal insularity, satisfied with the arrangement that in this airtight community, everything gets around but nothing gets out. The agency’s most renowned autocrats of the past—prison board chairman-for-life H. H. Coffield, haughty director-dictator George Beto, and his discredited successor, W. J. Estelle—are immortalized by prison units that bear their names. The new executive director, Wayne Scott, resides, as his predecessors did, in the two-story colonial brick affair built for reformist prison boss O. B. Ellis in 1949—a mansion not quite as grand as the governor’s and situated directly across the street from the Walls Unit, but a mansion nonetheless. Inmates tend Scott’s gardens, wash his car, and serve him food, just as they did for Ellis.
The prison system has its own culture and its own esoteric language. To watch the Texas Board of Criminal Justice (the prison oversight board consisting of nine unpaid citizens appointed in staggered six-year terms by the governor) attempt to even make sense of the prison system, much less to regulate it, is an embarrassing spectacle. Over the years board members have variously been indifferent, bewildered, or ethically challenged—or all of the above, in the case of the present board. Embattled though the TDCJ may be, the board remains utterly at its mercy. “We’ve had to wait for the media to tell us the things that we’re supposed to know,” complains new member John David Franz.
Yet the formidable power of the prison system has always been of the austere kind. The assorted middle managers of the TDCJ toil in a poorly lit converted warehouse. The prisons themselves are, with a few recently built exceptions, singularly wretched in appearance. The wardens greet guests in dumpy offices carpeted with institutional fabric the colors of which do not exist in nature. Even today, a prison visitor must identify himself by dropping his driver’s license into a tin can that the tower guard lowers by means of a rope. For Texans who like to see their state’s prisons bleak and antiquated, the TDCJ does not disappoint.
Dismal trappings notwithstanding, the prison system in the Andy Collins era became the biggest agency in the state. As the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Collins oversaw not only the prisons but also the parole division and state jail system. At the time he took over the job in April 1994, the TDCJ had 65 prison units. By the time Collins resigned twenty months later, the state boasted 108 prisons. The system housed 72,000 inmates in 1994; by 1996 that number would almost double.
His improbable ascent from summer intern to executive director makes sense only in retrospect. He went to work for the prison system in 1972, while still a student at Sam Houston State, spending a summer vacation as a prison guard in pursuit of his criminal justice degree. His first day on the job at Ellis I was made memorable when an inmate was dragged out of the shoe shop sporting a slashed throat. “I was so goddamned naive,” Collins says. “The day I showed up to prison, I didn’t know anyone in my family who’d had a divorce, much less been to jail.”
He was, as one colleague remembered him, “more glib than the average correctional officer,” a pudgy and fun-loving frat boy who could intimidate a can of Budweiser but not much else. He advanced through the ranks without making much of an impression, first as an unimposing prison guard and eventually as the warden of Beto I Unit, where even his friends say he was a failure. But he possessed both an acute internal weather vane and a gift for excellent timing. Collins’ rise coincided with the landmark Ruiz v. Estelle lawsuit, which cited injustices ranging from overcrowding to brutality against inmates and which compelled the ruffians who had been running the show (using thug inmates known as building tenders to keep order) to flee the prison system in droves. “Andy wasn’t from the same school as the old badass wardens like Billy McMillan and Beartracks McAdams and Wildcat Anderson,” says one former associate from Collins’ days at Beto I. “He was post-Ruiz through and through.”
Collins’ knack for good timing was never more apparent than in 1985, when as a beleaguered warden he gave notice and took a job with the Texas Youth Commission. It happened that the new prison board chairman, Al Hughes, insisted that the governor provide him an executive assistant in Austin. “I needed someone who had been in the trenches,” Hughes recalls. “The prison system is quasi-military in a lot of ways—there’s always nine million excuses for everything. I needed someone who had the institutional knowledge whom I could call at one in the morning and ask, ‘What the hell does ad-seg mean, anyway?’ Or ‘How many inmates per shower head does Ruiz require?’”
Hughes hired Collins, who thus became acquainted with the more rarefied side of the system, a world peopled by legislators and lobbyists rather than prison gangs. “Oh, man, I thought it was great,” Collins says today. Colleagues remember how well the 36-year-old ex-warden took to schmoozing in the Capitol and over pitchers of beer at the Texas Chili Parlor. Collins became a bureaucratic star, using well his gift for gab and his ability to spew out esoteric data he had just recently learned.
The event that placed Collins firmly on the fast track was the prison board’s decision at the end of 1986 to install TDCJ financial whiz Jim Lynaugh as director. Lynaugh in turn made Collins his deputy. The new director had worked under state comptroller Bob Bullock for nine years; “He understood money and was an absolute master at the political process,” Collins says. But Lynaugh delegated to Collins enormous authority over the prison operations. “Jim didn’t talk the lingo of corrections,” Collins says of his former boss. “We’d get to talking about putting an air fan in a flytrap at the Retrieve Unit, and his eyes would glaze over.” In 1990—to the chagrin of many wardens who remembered Andy Collins as one of their least competent peers—he was made the director of the TDCJ’s institutional division, the overseer of all prison operations.
As Collins’ star rose, Lynaugh’s began to fall. The board members appointed by new governor Ann Richards in 1991 were more interested in drug treatment than maximum-security confinement, and they regarded Lynaugh as cagey and arrogant. When in 1992 the news leaked that the TDCJ’s internal affairs division had been investigating a Richards-appointed board member, it became clear that Lynaugh’s days were numbered. But Collins remained the Artful Dodger. As he told a friend, “I got one of Ann’s people to let me see her, and I got on her drug-treatment bandwagon real quick.”
Lynaugh’s departure in September 1993 left a clear path to the top job for Collins. His claim today that “I didn’t want the job initially” draws laughter even from his supporters. From the start, Collins campaigned vigorously for the job, soliciting letters of recommendation from politicians all over Texas and Washington, D.C. His candidacy was boosted when Lynaugh told Bullock, who had been elected lieutenant governor, that Collins was the best man for the job, and Bullock in turn announced that Collins was his man. On April 10, 1994, the board made it official—but only after six and a half hours of deliberation, during which they resorted to the desperate measure of asking interim director Jim Riley to reconsider taking the job. One board member said during the closed-door meeting, “I just don’t believe that Andy Collins, as good as he is logistically, has the character to be executive director.”
The board member’s warning would prove grimly prescient, but Collins began his tenure with a determination to win over his doubters. It worked. “He succeeded beyond our wildest expectations,” recalls one opposition board member. The new director was everything Lynaugh wasn’t: open-minded, inclusive, seemingly eager to solicit the opinions of the board. He alone had the institutional knowledge and political savvy to cope with events that would engulf the state’s criminal justice landscape. “The day I walked into that job,” Collins says, “there were decisions that had to be made that day. And it would’ve taken anybody else two months minimum to get up to speed. There’s no other job in the country that would’ve prepared a person for this one.”
Among his many duties loomed a paramount mission: build more prisons—now. For earlier directors, prison building had not been a central focus because there wasn’t any money available. As a result of the Ruiz lawsuit’s decision that Texas prisons were overcrowded, parole officials started letting out as many as 79 percent of the state’s eligible inmates by the early nineties. When the public wouldn’t stand for this, the unspoken policy became to let the TDCJ inmates spend the bulk of their sentences in county jails because there was no room at the prisons. But the counties foiled this strategy by filing suit against the state in 1990. With Texas judges, juries, and politicians determined to send even the most nonviolent of criminals to prison, Texans dug deep and approved two state bond issues for prison construction totaling $2 billion.
Collins had to produce beds, tens of thousands of them all at once, and such a task was like nothing any previous director had experienced. Every new prison unit brought with it new travel demands, new contract squabbles, new personnel headaches, new inmate conflicts, and new litigation. Turf wars cropped up everywhere—between the new privately run prisons and the old prison bureaucracy, between bickering board members, between Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman John Whitmire and Huntsville-based House Corrections Committee chairman Allen Hightower—and Collins was caught in the middle. Appeasement was more Collins’ specialty, but there were just too many people to accommodate. Legislators wanted prisons built in their districts and, preferably, named after them; new vendors wanted their slice of the pie. And these requests came on top of the usual ones, such as state officials wanting to hunt quail and deer on prison property and influential Texans wanting some favored inmate to be transferred to a facility closer to home.
Collins’ tendency to accommodate important people rankled his underlings. He ramrodded the hirings of less-qualified individuals who happened to be recommended by influential legislators and let board members circumvent the TDCJ’s construction staff. The director’s tenure would eventually be marked by numerous floutings of established procedures, by himself and by board members whose meddling he did nothing to discourage, all of which profoundly demoralized TDCJ staffers.
But Collins himself wasn’t exactly having a gay time of it. “I was the first guy in the office, the last to leave,” he says. “I worked seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day on call. Thousands of hours I lost, not compensated for.” Prison life had become suffocating for the TDCJ lifer, and the Huntsville mansion offered no solace. The sound of the Walls Unit inmates pounding their basketballs was like a hammer in his head. The phone rang all night long, with each caller conveying some new minicrisis for Collins to lose sleep over. One of the inmate house servants had swiped some of Collins’ money and a couple of pairs of his jeans. The claustrophobic lifestyle in Huntsville had taken its toll on his personal life, especially when several female prison employees scurrilously charged in a lawsuit that Collins had allowed a prison captain to sexually harass them because the captain knew something about Collins’ alleged sexual dalliances.
Who needed this kind of grief? All around him, prison entrepreneurs with one tenth of his experience were effortlessly raking it in. Private prison companies like Wackenhut and the Corrections Corporation of America counted Texas as their number one client. The firms were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to veteran Capitol lobbyists like former Speaker Billy Clayton and Ed Wendler to represent them, and the lobbyists in turn were enriching the campaign coffers of politicians across the state. Topped-out TDCJ wardens and bureaucrats were crossing over to become well-paid private-prison employees. Among those were a number of tough old wardens from the pre-Ruiz days. If those dinosaurs could make it in the new world, why couldn’t Andy Collins?
Even a prominent former critic of private prisons, Collins’ old friend Charles Terrell, the chairman of the prison board from 1987 to 1990, had gone over to the other side. Fully six months before he resigned from the board, Terrell had quietly formed his own company, Corrections Solutions. By 1994 the former prison overseer was hitting up the TDCJ for business. But Terrell—who has made millions selling insurance in Dallas—would fare poorly as a prison profiteer. Three times he was thwarted in bids to build and operate a private prison, and in one case he was outright outpoliticked by State Senator Bill Ratliff and State Representative Paul Sadler, who arm-twisted the board to award a contract to a group operating out of Henderson.
But Charlie Terrell would keep turning up, a former public servant dancing in and out of a world gone ethically ablur. He would do business with director Andy Collins before all was said and done. Their fates, in fact, would be bound by a man who would come to epitomize the dark, degenerative side of the great prison boom: Patrick Harold Graham.
CREATURE OF DESTINY THAT HE WAS, Pat Graham slithered into the weed-choked garden of the prison business with the greatest of ease. Graham started out straight, selling Johnny Carson-style blazers at his father’s clothing store in Houston. Later he established his own haberdashery in Humble, but beyond the racks of polyester lay treasures for the taking, and Graham was nothing if not a taker at heart.
Truth be told, he was a likable devil and had “the greatest bullshit of anyone I’ve ever heard,” according to one of his future prosecutors. The early ventures of Graham and his brother and business partner, Mike, involved a forklift business, a natural-gas-pipeline operation, and an alcohol-free teen discotheque. Later would come the attempts to clone cattle, build offices out of recycled garbage, and bring pro basketball to New Orleans. But along the way, Pat Graham made a brief pit stop in the early eighties as an employee for a modest private detention company out of Victoria—and there he saw gold.
The smell of money must have made his nostrils flare like hoop skirts in a hurricane. Texas was dying for prison beds. In 1987 Graham pronounced himself a jail builder, formed N-Group Securities with Mike, and spent the next three years trying to persuade counties to let him build their jails on spec financed with revenue bonds. The revenues that would pay off the bonds would come from contracts with TDCJ and other entities to house overflow prisoners. And Graham gathered an impressive collection of business associates: ex-governor Mark White, former state senator Ray Hutchison (the spouse of eventual U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison), the highbrow private prison company Wackenhut, and a host of county officials who were assured by Graham that a Texas jail would never want for inmates—that if you built one, TDCJ would come.
Graham’s associates became his victims. He charged six counties a total of $73 million, financed with bond issues, for six jails that were worth about $50 million. He demanded, and received, at least $6 million in kickbacks from secret arrangements with underwriters and construction associates, according to court documents. When in 1988 then-director Jim Lynaugh saw the N-Group facility plans for what they were—minimum-security prison dorms that did not comply with Ruiz standards—he informed Graham that the TDCJ would not be doing business with N-Group. But Graham wasn’t going to let a little federal court order spoil the deal. The jails were completed in 1991, and thereafter Graham unleashed a political blitzkrieg urging the TDCJ to contract with counties to house prisoners there: speeches by Mark White (to whom N-Group contributed $225,000 for his failed 1990 bid for governor), angry letters by county judges and local legislators, and indignant newspaper editorials. Lynaugh didn’t budge. As he would later testify dryly, “I did not wish to incur the wrath of a federal judge.”
When it dawned on the bondholders that they had been sold a bill of goods, they glumly sold the six N-Group facilities to the TDCJ for 50 cents on the dollar and sued Pat and Mike Graham. The N-Group civil lawsuit took place in the fall of 1994, five months after Andy Collins had become the TDCJ’s executive director. Collins and Lynaugh both testified at the trial, by which time it was common knowledge that, as Allen Hightower puts it, “You were putting your reputation at one hell of a risk by having any association with Pat Graham.” Everyone knew that Graham had been indicted in Pecos County for various jail-building malfeasances. Everyone knew he had snookered the bondholders and pocketed unheard-of sums of kickbacks. And as the trial transcript shows, Graham changed his Fifth Amendment plea and agreed to testify following a payment of $50,000 by co-defendant Lott Construction.
Yet Collins turned a deaf ear to the denunciations. Though he had toured the N-Group jails with then—prison board chairman Selden Hale and, according to Hale, “didn’t have anything particularly nice to say about the facilities,” from the witness stand he sounded like N-Group’s biggest fan. Rebutting the testimony of his former boss Jim Lynaugh, Collins testified not only that the six jails were suitable for maximum-security purposes but that in fact he saw no reason why the facilities couldn’t be used for death row inmates. Long after the jury had declared a $37 million judgment against N-Group, observers remained stunned by Collins’ Graham-friendly testimony. Perhaps, they speculated, the executive director was simply trying to brownnose the new prison board chairman, Carol Vance, whose law firm represented one of the several defendants in the N-Group case.
That would have been characteristic of the ingratiating Collins. But such a theory does not preclude a more disturbing possibility—namely, that as the prison boom festered into an avaricious free-for-all, Andy Collins had lost the ability to differentiate between the merely audacious and the downright sleazy. Even the classiest of the private prison companies seemed hopelessly greed-stricken: They variously hired teachers who weren’t certified, paid them salaries with Pell Grants until the feds got wind that the required matching funds were never provided, and in the meantime padded company profits by short-staffing the facilities and overcharging inmates on long-distance phone calls. A few legislators brazenly applied their lips to the correctional teat—notably Mark Stiles, of Beaumont, who was riding the prison-building wave as a concrete subcontractor, and Senate Criminal Justice Committee chairman John Whitmire, who took a $4,000-per-month gig with the Harris County probation department while the county was vying for a new Mode II prison to be run by the probation department. Even the self-proclaimed do-gooders, Collins must have figured, had a little bit of Pat Graham in them.
Overseeing Collins was a prison board that at times seemed entranced, if not thoroughly compromised, by the prison boom. Board member Ellen Halbert had gone positively giddy when the mayor of Burnet, hoping to land a proposed substance-abuse facility, offered to name it after her. Halbert’s feisty new ally on the board, John David Franz, of Hidalgo, immediately began to lobby other members to bring one of those lucrative prisons to South Texas. John Ward, the former mayor of the prison town of Gatesville and the husband of a teacher in the Windham prison school system, was an outright booster. Josh Allen, a Beaumont construction executive, had been seen huddling with Brown and Root executives just before voting on construction issues (though a TDCJ investigation did not reveal any improprieties). Rufus Duncan, of Lufkin, who had openly bragged to Texas construction companies that he had “been one of the instigators” of the TDCJ’s new prison-building scheme, intervened on at least two prison projects and pushed general contractors to hire his friend Hoople Jordan as the dirt-paving subcontractor, even though Jordan’s paving material was less durable and would have to be hauled to the sites from a considerable distance although nearer material was available.
But none of the board members had anything on autocratic chairman Allan Polunsky, whose defiance of procedure Collins often witnessed firsthand. It was the chairman who directly ordered Wackenhut to spend thousands of dollars erecting a fence in front of its Kyle facility so that motorists on Interstate 35 wouldn’t see the facility’s inmates playing basketball outside. It was Polunsky who ordered that existing private-prison contracts be rebid without consulting the other board members. And it was Polunsky who used Collins and other TDCJ officials to clear a path so that Polunsky’s old college roommate could claim a share of the TDCJ’s grease trap—cleaning business. At Polunsky’s request, Andy Collins lunched with Sanitech president David Collins (no relation) and thereafter joined Polunsky in badgering prison staffers into giving the ex-roommate special treatment: canceling contracts with existing vendors, rewriting contract specifications in a way that favored Sanitech, and even letting David Collins pick up his checks at the state treasurer’s office in Austin rather than waiting for them to be sent out of Huntsville. By the time the Sanitech president sold his company to a rival in 1995, he had grossed more than half a million dollars doing business with the TDCJ.
If Polunsky and other board members didn’t care about ethics, why should Andy Collins? And why, therefore, should anyone rattle his sword at Pat Graham? Besides, Graham wasn’t going away. Despite his testimony during the N-Group lawsuit that “I would never build another jail again,” Graham was then conceiving a juvenile lock-up facility in Jena, Louisiana. Once again he had solicited some impressive backing: Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards had awarded the project to Graham, the investment group behind it was led by former Houston mayor Fred Hofheinz, and Graham’s development partner was none other than Collins’ old friend Charlie Terrell. These men saw Graham as a rainmaker. Leave it to the N-Group jury to pass judgment. There was still money to be made.
In June 1995—nine months after Collins’ friendly testimony in the N-Group lawsuit—Graham’s proposal for the Jena juvenile facility landed on the director’s desk. With the proposal came a job offer: Collins could form a company to operate the facility. Other potential private operators had passed on the deal, and Terrell himself had pulled out; but as Collins studied the numbers, he concluded that it was their loss. By his calculations, he stood to clear well in excess of $150,000 annually. Coupled with the $50,000 retirement package he would be receiving, Andy Collins didn’t see how he could say no. So he didn’t.
On July 12, 1995, without notifying the TDCJ board, Collins quietly formed a Louisiana corporation called Professional Care of America, naming himself, Hofheinz, and former N-Group treasurer James Brunson as the officers. (Four months later, Collins would also incorporate a Texas business he called Certified Technology Consultants and list as his registered agent Lori Lero—an attorney who happened to be Pat Graham’s daughter.) Collins’ explanation for not notifying the board is that he didn’t want to spook the New York—based bondholders who would be financing the construction of the Jena facility. But he must have known that the potential for a conflict of interest would have made it difficult for him to hold both jobs, if word got out. Inevitably, word did get out, and in early September Collins was informed by Governor Bush, through Polunsky, that he would have to choose between his two jobs—now.
Collins chose Jena. At the September board meeting, Collins announced his resignation from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Aside from briefing Polunsky and his other friend on the board, Gatesville’s John Ward, Collins declined to tell the other seven members what his specific plans were. He simply said he was going into private business—that he had faced a “reality check” when he recently paid tuition to send his eldest daughter off to Texas A&M.
A number of the board members didn’t know what to make of Collins’ announcement. The director was making $120,000, living rent-free, and driving a company car—and he still couldn’t afford to send his daughter to a state school? A reporter for the Austin American-Statesman met privately with Collins. “You’ve got to tell me who you’re going to work for,” Collins says the reporter demanded.
“No,” said Collins. “I really don’t have to.” And that was that. The veteran public servant was now going private all the way.
BUT ANDY COLLINS BEGAN GOING private at least six months too soon. For between the time he first read Graham’s Jena proposal last June and the time he left office on December 31, three prison vendors benefited from extraordinary contracts with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice—and all three vendors, Collins admitted to me without hesitation, were companies he in fact had hoped to do business with once he left office at the close of 1995. The evidence can be read to suggest that Collins viewed his last six months in office as a window of opportunity to ingratiate himself with potential employers by awarding them fat contracts that they perhaps did not deserve, with the hope that the favor would be returned.
Collins’ first beneficiary was a Houston-based construction company, 3D/International. The TDCJ’s records show that on June 27, Collins and a few of his lieutenants met with 3D/I officials in Houston and agreed to award the company a $932,000 contract to design a high-security prototype prison unit without subjecting 3D/I to a qualifications process. Less than seven months later, in January 1996, the just-retired Collins would fly to Oregon with 3D/I officials on a trial run as the company’s consultant.
The prototype contract was icing on the cake for 3D/I, which had benefited greatly from the prison-building scheme utilized by the TDCJ’s deputy director of construction J. B. Cole (who retired last February). Using “construction managers” like 3D/I to oversee all the general contractors and subcontractors would, according to Cole, result in quicker, less expensive prison building. But an analysis of TDCJ figures suggests otherwise: The 12,000 warehouselike “emergency beds” built using 3D/I as a construction manager turned out to be more expensive per square foot than the average maximum-security facility, and later construction-manager projects cost the state at least $17.2 million more than what it cost to build comparable facilities without construction managers. A main reason for the scheme’s excessive cost was the hefty up-front fee paid to “managers” like 3D/I (which pocketed $1.7 million for the emergency-bed program). As a construction manager, 3D/I was never required to prove that it was the best-qualified company. Its hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of reimbursable expenses were never audited. And in August 1994, 3D/I was even paid $80,000 to write a TDCJ construction-procedures manual, even though the agency already had an updated manual. (Twenty months later, 3D/I had yet to complete the manual.)
Another beneficiary of Collins’ largesse was Safeguard Technology, a Hackensack, New Jersey, company that designed fences for the Israeli government. On August 29, 1995, Collins circulated an interoffice memo ordering the purchase of high-security motion-detector fences on an emergency basis. “The immediate purchase of the improved security system is a life/safety issue,” Collins wrote. “Due to the recent change in demographic population, we have been required to place inmates in a less secure environment than absolutely required. The installation of these systems is required to be accomplished within the next ninety days.”
TDCJ staffers couldn’t believe what they were reading. After all, it had not been much more than a year ago that Collins had been heard scoffing at state comptroller John Sharp’s recommendation that the TDCJ replace its guard towers, or pickets, with motion-detector fences. “Sharp doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” Collins said to staffers more than once. “No fence is going to see better than a good pair of eyes.” Now Collins was a fence convert, and in short order a $9.2 million contract was awarded to Safeguard without competitive bidding. It turned out that about $6 million of the contract involved the “less secure environment” used to justify the emergency purchase. The rest of the money went to buy fences for five new higher-security units—units that in fact are set on large compounds that are completely secure, hardly requiring the taut-wire intrusion-detection fences being manufactured by Safeguard. In the case of the “less secure” units, those fences were not installed “within the next ninety days”; in fact, three of the ten fences weren’t scheduled for completion until December of this year. What this means, of course, is that there was plenty of time to submit the project to a nonemergency competitive-bidding process. The fences for the high-security units have yet to be erected; they currently reside in a TDCJ warehouse.
So just what was the emergency? Perhaps that Andy Collins was looking for business clients. Four months after awarding the contract, Collins flew to New York and dropped by the Safeguard offices while he was in the neighborhood. Though he admitted to me that he and Safeguard president Moshe Levy had been discussing Collins’ doing work for Safeguard on a commission basis, Collins said they didn’t sign any deals during his visit: “Actually, I went up there for the Jena deal, because I wanted them to look at the plans of doing something for that particular facility.”
In other words, Collins, while still serving as the TDCJ’s executive director, was negotiating with a TDCJ vendor to do business with Collins’ own private enterprise—a textbook case of conflicted interests.
Collins saved his best act of generosity for VitaPro. In February 1994, well before Collins decided to leave the TDCJ, he was visited in his Huntsville office by former board chairman Charlie Terrell and a Montreal entrepreneur named Yank Barry, who was the president of VitaPro. Terrell and Barry wanted to know if the prison system might have a use for VitaPro—not only for its own inmates, but as a commodity it could sell to other markets throughout the U.S., much as the TDCJ does with the cattle it raises.
A year later, on January 30, 1995, a TDCJ press release trumpeted “an innovative agreement with VitaPro to nationally market, package, and distribute the new soy-based chicken and beef supplement.” The release neglected to mention that the $6.7 million contract was awarded without competitive bidding and that Terrell would be paid a commission to help market the product. Terrell was in fact so taken with VitaPro that he became a worldwide broker for the company, services for which Yank Barry paid him more than $40,000 in 1995. One of the markets Terrell advised Barry to target was Louisiana, and in February, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Houston, the former prison board chairman introduced Barry to a stand-up guy who knew the Louisiana market inside out: Pat Graham.
Graham had been busy with the Jena juvenile facility deal, but with the $37 million judgment hanging over his head from the N-Group lawsuit, he also began selling VitaPro—first in Louisiana and later (though without Barry’s permission) in Texas. He even printed up business cards advertising himself as a VitaPro distributor, though his correspondence with Barry makes it clear that Graham was to be considered merely a broker.
VitaPro’s merits have been much derided in Texas newspapers of late, perhaps unfairly. The company has dozens of corporate clients, and as an extender—a way of stretching ten hamburger patties into fifteen, for example—and as a meat replacement, the soybean product has a proven track record. Other reporters have made sport of the fast-talking ex-felon Barry, but the sins of VitaPro have little to do with him or his brainchild. Instead, they have to do with the way Collins crammed VitaPro down the TDCJ’s throat—particularly beginning in July 1995, when the soon-to-be-retired director extended VitaPro’s initial contract to a $33.7 million, five-year deal, without telling the board, his food-service managers, or his second-in-command, Wayne Scott. While staffers were wondering what to do with TDCJ’s new meat-packing facility in Amarillo and the hog farm it had just acquired from Texas A&M, Collins pressured his subordinates to market VitaPro to Texas schools, and when a market for the product failed to materialize, Collins ordered workers to rewrite prison menus so that they incorporated VitaPro as a meat substitute on a daily basis—an overusage Barry himself had never promoted and which food-services manager Janie Thomas fought until Collins ordered her to be “a team player.”
Upon retirement from the Texas prison system, Collins immediately began traveling all over America on VitaPro’s behalf. Yank Barry was thrilled with his new spokesman: “He was opening doors everywhere, doing unbelievable work for us,” Barry gushes. For the first two months of 1996, VitaPro issued a total of $30,000 in checks to Collins’ consulting company or to Collins himself. By Barry’s estimate, Collins stood to make as much as $80,000 from VitaPro by year’s end—and surely would have, just as he would have opened the Jena facility, were it not for his partner Pat Graham.
WHILE A 35-YEAR-OLD HOUSTON huckster named Rocky Harmon was sitting in the Harris County jail in June 1995, awaiting transfer to prison for being popped in a fraudulent basketball ticket scam, his mother called Pat Graham and chewed him out. “You’ve taken all my husband’s money. You’ve been a terrible influence on my son,” she yelled tearfully into the phone. “The least you can do, with all your big connections, is see to it that my boy, Rocky, doesn’t get mistreated in prison!”
Harmon’s mother had a point: The father had been taken to the cleaners in a couple of muffed ventures with Graham; the son had been something of a protégé. “I’ll do what I can to help the boy,” Graham pledged.
For once, Graham proved true to his word. At his behest, Collins arranged to have Harmon transferred to the Diagnostic Unit in Huntsville, where he was assigned a low-stress job. On July 29, 1995, Harmon’s parents and Graham paid him a visit. Collins showed up as well and, according to Collins, chatted with the parents for about five minutes, gave the new inmate “the standard keep-your-nose-clean speech,” and departed with Graham. But to the other inmates in the visitation room, a visit by the executive director of the TDCJ, for whatever length of time, was something out of the ordinary. They began to look at inmate 714443 a bit differently after that. Rocky Harmon took note of this and affected a certain swagger.
One day on the volleyball court, Harmon approached Dana McIntosh, an inmate serving 75 years for murdering his wife despite his claims of innocence. McIntosh was a special case, a brilliant computer specialist whose data-processing skills were much in demand at the TDCJ, and the staff handled him with uncharacteristic deference. Harmon began his first conversation with McIntosh by saying, “You know, you and I aren’t like the others here. We’re white, we’re educated—”
McIntosh, who had seen Harmon with Collins but wasn’t particularly impressed, cut him off. “We’re not alike at all,” McIntosh said.
But Harmon persisted. Later, in November, he approached the fifty-year-old inmate with a proposition. “I know you want out of here,” Harmon said, “and I know seventy-five years is a long time. I’ll bet you could buy your way out of prison.” Harmon then got more specific: The friend who had visited him in July was Andy Collins’ business partner. For a fee—and here, Harmon discreetly indicated that some of the fee would properly come his way—Collins and his partner could spring McIntosh.
The older inmate was left with much to consider. Yes, McIntosh wanted out. But not this way, and besides, any arrangement involving a clown like Rocky Harmon was bound to be botched—most likely Harmon’s friend would just take McIntosh’s money and skate with it. On the other hand, what if the executive director of the TDCJ was involved? What would happen to an inmate like McIntosh if he didn’t take Collins up on such an offer? How many days would he last in prison? In the middle of November, McIntosh told his girlfriend, Karyn, about the proposition during a Sunday prison visit. She agreed to contact the FBI, and by the beginning of December, the sting was on.
On December 19, Karyn says, she agreed to meet a man who identified himself on the telephone as Harold Robert—the first and middle names of Pat Graham’s father, as it turned out. At a Houston Galleria restaurant, a jowly man in a nice suit sat at her table. According to Karyn, he was without a doubt the man investigators had shown her in photographs—that is to say, Pat Graham. “He said he was the deputy director of the TDCJ,” she says. “He said there were a certain number of inmates who shouldn’t be in the system, and this was a service they provided. For $250,000, they would change Dana’s inmate status and transfer him to the John Sealy hospital unit in Galveston and put him on a detail where he would be alone and could walk about freely. After giving another $250,000, I could then pick up Dana at the unit and drive off to the airport. Then they would fly us to Louisiana. After that we would catch a plane to Miami, then another plane to the American Virgin Islands, and then take a boat over to the British Virgin Islands. Then we’d fly to Costa Rica and wait six or eight months. And then, for another $250,000, Dana would receive a pardon from the governor, and we could go wherever we liked.
“He was about the creepiest man I’ve ever met.”
During the month, Karyn had several other conversations with “Harold Robert,” most of which were taped by investigators. On January 3, the FBI provided her with $150,000 in cash. The following morning, she says, Graham called and told her to bring the down payment to a Mexican restaurant on the northeast side of the city. In the parking lot next to the restaurant, Graham climbed inside Karyn’s car, whereupon she handed him the box stuffed with fifteen $10,000 bundles. He was just putting the third bundle into his briefcase when law enforcement agents swarmed the car.
Even as the investigators handcuffed Graham and read him his rights, he seemed to mutate before Karyn’s eyes. “He looked like this perfect citizen,” she remembers. “The countenance on his face was that of a guy who was only trying to help.”
IT WAS THE KIND OF HELP COLLINS didn’t need. Five days after Graham’s arrest, on January 9, the police questioned the just-retired prison director about his role in the escape ploy. He told them the same thing he told me a few weeks later: “I didn’t know a thing about it. Graham was just using my name. The guy duped me.”
Apparently lost on Collins was how easy a dupe he had become. He had chosen to view Graham as the vehicle for his own metaphorical jailbreak and was unable or unwilling to see that Graham could only drag him down. Sure enough, Graham’s association with both VitaPro and Collins added to emerging questions about the soybean product’s contract with the TDCJ, and before long, Collins had become a liability to VitaPro, necessitating Yank Barry’s request on February 26 that Collins resign. And now here was Andy Collins in self-imposed exile north of Houston, pondering the folly of it all while others determined his fate. In a similar limbo reposed a nearby resident, Pat Graham—who Collins now insisted had been scarcely more than an acquaintance: “I could probably count the times I dealt with Pat on one hand. And the conversations we had were never more than five minutes.”
The ex-director was cutting and running from Graham, defending each and every one of the alleged sweetheart contracts, and above all, proclaiming his right to go to work for the recipients of said contracts. “If I can’t do business with the people I know,” he declared, “who am I supposed to do business with?” The question legal investigators will be contemplating, however, is not who Collins did business with, but how and when and why he did business. For now, no evidence exists that Collins committed any crimes—that he took money or was promised employment in exchange for awarding contracts, or even that he violated some obscure purchasing law. But his actions, legal or not, raise character questions about Collins that have no doubt cast a pall over his consulting career.
“I had a whole list of companies to contact,” he told me at the first sign of evening, just before he broke out the Scotch and the cigars. “I could’ve gone to work for anybody—because I knew everybody. And I knew how these places worked. I knew how to build stuff. I privatized more prisons than anyone.” The name of a prominent private-prison operator who had apparently been interested in Collins’ services came up. “The guy’s an idiot—he knows nothing about prisons,” said Collins. “I could’ve helped him. I could’ve made millions for him.”
But Collins’ fatal flaw was the same as his business partner’s. Over and over, sources had told me that Graham, for all his sleaziness, had possessed more than a few good ideas—if only he had played them on the up and up. And now the same could be said of Collins. If only he had played it straight with the state. If only he had waited to set up shop until after he resigned. If only he had held out against the greed of the prison expansion instead of becoming its facilitator, its victim, and at last, its ignominious poster boy.