Luther Jones, a former El Paso elected official who was disbarred a decade ago after being convicted of charges that he conspired to corrupt county and school governments, is seeking to have his Texas law license reinstated.
Among his supporters: state Sen. John Whitmire, who is running to be Houston’s next mayor.
Jones, who has lived in Houston since 2015, said he is seeking to practice law again at age 77 “because if I stop working, I start dying.”
Even if a court grants his request for reinstatement, which is opposed by the Texas State Bar, Jones would have to pass the bar exam again. He said he plans to do mostly pro bono work, focusing on environmental litigation and tenants facing eviction. He also said he would “represent people charged with minor crimes.”
“It’s kind of a way of atonement. I hope that doesn’t sound corny, but that’s the way I kind of feel about it,” he said in a phone interview.
Jones was among more than 30 government officials, business people and lawyers who were convicted or pleaded guilty to federal charges as a result of Operation Poisoned Pawns, a sprawling FBI investigation into corruption in the city and county governments, as well as El Paso’s three largest school districts. The investigation came to public light in 2006, when FBI agents raided the El Paso County Courthouse.
Jones said he “exiled myself from El Paso” after being released from prison in 2015. He volunteered at a Houston hospital after moving there, then took a job from 2015 to 2021 doing constituent work for Whitmire, D-Houston. They served together in the Texas House of Representatives in the 1970s.
A ‘half-century’ friendship
Whitmire is listed as a witness in Jones’ reinstatement petition, as is another former House colleague in the 1970s, John Bryant of Dallas. A court filing states Whitmire will testify about his “half-century” friendship with Jones; their close working relationship as public officials; and Jones’ work in Whitmire’s office in Houston.
“I have always been a believer in second chances,” Whitmire said in a statement. “Mr. Jones paid a high price for violating the law and now it’s time to let him have a second chance, like others I have supported.”
Bryant served in Congress from 1983 to 1997. He was elected to the Texas House in 2022 after being out of politics for 26 years.
He said Jones was a dedicated public servant for many years, and a talented lawyer. Bryant said people should be judged on the totality of their lives.
“Luther’s a person of great character, he’s generous and honest and was accused of being overzealous in representing a client. The jury didn’t agree with his testimony, convicted him,” Bryant said, referring to one of the two indictments that led to Jones’ imprisonment. “He did his time, and he returned to public life and began doing volunteer work. The law allows a person who’s done that to receive their law license, to return to law practice, if they pass the bar exam.”
Corruption involving Jones and others in the 1990s and early 2000s did extensive damage to El Paso, said Steve Ortega, who ran successfully for City Council in 2005 in part because he was concerned about a pay-to-play system that permeated local government.
“At the end of the day, you don’t want corruption in the community because it harms competitiveness,” said Ortega, who now works as a private attorney in El Paso.
The El Paso of 25 years ago was in an economic tailspin, Ortega said. So government contracts were a key source of revenue for many businesses.
“So if you can manipulate that process, you had access to significant funds, contracts, and then if you can manipulate the political process, it makes access to those funds and contracts even easier,” he said.
Much of the El Paso business and political community were aware of the widespread corruption, but few spoke out, Ortega said.
Ortega said that as an attorney, he doesn’t feel Jones deserves a chance to practice law again.
“I believe in the concept of redemption, but only he knows if he’s fully atoned for his acts. Just from a professional perspective, I don’t think anyone who is that entrenched in corrupt activities should have the license returned,” he said.
Jones said he hopes his wish to practice law again doesn’t anger people in El Paso.
“I apologize to them. I have no ill will against anybody, including the people that prosecuted me, the judge that sentenced me. I have nothing but the highest regard for the criminal justice system. I accepted my fate and I took my punishment, and I’m trying to rebuild a productive life. What else can I say?”
Jones filed a petition for reinstatement to the Texas State Bar in a Harris County district court in July. A hearing on Jones’ petition is scheduled for Oct. 27, with a trial planned for Sept. 30, 2024.
A State Bar spokesperson declined comment beyond providing their court filing that stated they are opposed to Jones’ reinstatement.
Under State Bar rules, disbarred lawyers seeking reinstatement have the “burden of establishing by a preponderance of the evidence that the best interests of the public and the profession, as well as the ends of justice, would be served by his or her reinstatement.”
A political force becomes an inmate
Jones served in the Texas House of Representatives from 1973-1981. He was appointed El Paso County attorney in 1983 and was elected county judge in 1986. He was defeated for re-election in 1990.
After his re-election defeat, Jones worked as an attorney and behind-the-scenes power broker, helping elect people to City Council, County Commissioners Court and school boards. He then used those he helped elect to steer contracts to his clients, according to indictments filed in 2009 and 2010.
Jones was convicted on two separate indictments. One alleged that he bribed an unnamed county commissioner and District Clerk Gilbert Sanchez to rig a bid to favor his client for a contract to digitize court records. The second indictment alleged he bribed Ysleta school board members to award a health insurance contract to his client. He was convicted by a jury on the first indictment and pleaded guilty to the second.
He was sentenced to six years in prison. He was released from prison in July 2015 and completed his probation terms three years later.
Jones was disbarred in 2013 as a result of his felony convictions. In his reinstatement petition, Jones said he wanted to voluntarily surrender his law license after his conviction, but was unable to do so because he was imprisoned and didn’t have access to his records.
Ortega, the former El Paso City Council member, said Bryant’s description of Jones’ actions with El Paso governments was “dead-ass wrong.”
“There was a long-term effort that resulted in systematic corruption,” Ortega said.
Disclosure: Steve Ortega is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters. Financial supporters play no role in El Paso Matters’ journalism.
Houston Landing staff writer Tim Carlin contributed to this report.