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editor's pick
Starr helped raise money for Oakman's legal defense
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Ken Starr, who was fired as Baylor University president after presiding over what investigators called a “fundamental failure” in the way the school handled sexual assault allegations, raised money to help former Baylor football player Shawn Oakman fight a rape charge.

Throughout his career, Starr has served as a federal appellate judge, a special prosecutor, a U.S. solicitor general, a defense attorney, a clerk for a chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, a law school dean and president and chancellor of Baylor University.

Starr’s extensive experience has allowed him to view the criminal justice system from multiple vantage points. His stint as a dogged special counsel led to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, and his two years clerking for former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger opened Starr’s eyes to flaws in the system and the potentials for wrongful convictions, he said.

“I believe fervently in the right of all defendants to have a fair trial,” Starr said. “In our country’s system of justice, far too many innocent individuals are wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit.”

Starr said he and his wife, Alice, played host to a gathering at their home to raise money for Oakman’s legal defense fund. Starr said he could not remember the date of the gathering, but said it was before Oakman’s first two attorneys withdrew and he was given two court-appointed attorneys, a court-appointed investigator and access to county funds to pay for consultants and expert witnesses.

Starr declined to say who attended the event, only that it involved a “goodly number of concerned friends.” He also declined to say how much money it raised for Oakman’s defense. He did, however, say the money was not used to pay Alan Bennett or Jessi Freud, Oakman’s court-appointed attorneys.

A jury in Waco’s 19th State District Court acquitted Oakman last month of sexually assaulting a Baylor graduate student with whom he had a previous sexual relationship. The woman, who said her memory was “spotty” because she was drunk, testified Oakman raped her in April 2016 at his off-campus duplex after a night of drinking at two Waco bars.

Oakman, who transferred to Baylor from Penn State University, ended his career as Baylor’s all-time sack leader and was considered a sure NFL draft pick before his arrest. He is the third defensive end from Baylor to be tried for sexually assaulting fellow Baylor students.

Tevin Elliott is serving 20 years in prison after four women said he sexually assaulted them. Sam Ukwuachu also was convicted of sexual assault and placed on probation by a 54th State District Court jury. His conviction was overturned by Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals, but that reversal later was overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The high court ruled the 10th Court was wrong in overturning Ukwuachu’s conviction and returned it to the 10th Court to consider two other points of appeal that the Waco intermediate appellate court did not consider. His appeal is pending.

Ukwuachu’s trial focused a glaring spotlight on Baylor’s shortcomings in dealing with sexual assault and Title IX-related accusations, led to the ouster of Starr and football coach Art Briles, the resignation of athletics director Ian McCaw and sparked an NCAA investigation.

Starr said he decided to help raise money for Oakman’s defense after one of Oakman’s first attorneys, Michelle Tuegel, told Starr that Oakman’s family didn’t have the money to “retain much-needed experts to help Shawn prove his innocence.”

Also, donors wanted to help Oakman because of a “widely shared belief that Sam Ukwuachu did not mount an adequate defense,” Starr said. When asked who shared that belief, Starr said, “lots of people, especially lawyers.”

“We responded to this compelling need because our community had done little or nothing to assist or support Sam Ukwuachu, who many of us felt had been wrongly convicted,” Starr said. “I did not want another injustice to be done. Alice and I therefore hosted a gathering at our home where a volunteer lawyer reviewed the records in Sam’s case, especially cellphone records, which fully corroborated Sam’s explanation that he was entirely innocent of the serious charges brought against him. Our financial support in Shawn’s case was limited to retaining those much-needed experts who could help prove Shawn’s innocence, not compensating the defense lawyers.”

Neither Starr nor Bennett would divulge the name of the attorney who attended the fundraiser. Bennett was appointed to represent Oakman after Tuegel and Russ Hunt withdrew because they had not been paid. Bennett said that after he was appointed, the attorney who was at Starr’s home sent him the funds that had been raised and he deposited them in his office trust account.

Paying experts

The funds were used to pay an investigator, two expert witnesses and another consulting expert who did not testify, Bennett said. He and Freud were paid by the county as court-appointed attorneys. Bennett presented time forms to the county Friday that would pay him $17,240 for 200 hours of out-of-court preparation time at $75 an hour and 28 hours of in-court time at $80 an hour, pending approval by Judge Ralph Strother.

Freud said Tuesday she has not turned in her time forms but that she spent fewer hours on the case because she was appointed after Bennett.

“Shawn is deeply grateful to those who generously donated their time and resources, significantly contributing to his ability to prove his innocence,” Bennett said. “Though it is theoretically true that an accused person bears no burden at trial and enjoys the presumption of innocence, the reality is otherwise. Very few accused persons who rest on the presumption alone are acquitted, even though the courts instruct jurors that this is a sufficient basis for acquittal.

“Because of the generosity of those who contributed, we were able to go above and beyond the norm, offer affirmative evidence of innocence, and secure an acquittal. Sadly, Shawn’s case also demonstrates the continuing gap between indigent accused persons and those with resources available to vigorously contest the allegations against them. It raises the question of whether there truly is equal justice under the law for indigent accused persons. This is an ongoing concern that needs to be meaningfully addressed by the Texas Legislature,” Bennett said.

Starr, who said he has not met Ukwuachu, intervened on Elliott’s behalf, allowing him back in school in 2011 by helping lift an academic misconduct suspension, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2016. Three sexual assault allegations against Elliott came after he was reinstated at Baylor.

Starr acknowledged that he stood up for Elliott to get him back in school, but declined to discuss his reasons, saying the topic is the possible subject of the NCAA investigation.

“I collaborated closely with Ian McCaw on all issues affecting the welfare and future of Baylor student-athletes,” Starr said.

McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson said he agrees with Starr that all defendants have a right to a fair trial and said he has no problem with Starr’s fundraising efforts. He declined comment when asked why he thinks Starr sided with Oakman and Ukwuachu over their accusers, who also were Baylor students.

“If he is saying our victims were not worthy of belief, I do disagree with that completely,” Johnson said. “It was my decision to go forward with the (Oakman) case, and I would have instructed the lawyers not to go forward with the case if they were frivolous charges or charges that should not be pursued. In my opinion, it should have been pursued. The evidence we had was such that I told the lawyers to proceed to trial, and the 12 jurors heard both sides of it and made the decision for a not-guilty on behalf of the defendant. I do take exception to anybody saying we went to trial on false charges or frivolous charges, because that is just incorrect.”

Prosecutors offered Oakman deferred probation in exchange for a guilty plea several months before the trial. Oakman turned it down, saying he wanted his day in court to prove his innocence.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 


editor's pick
Habitat for Humanity RV Care-A-Vanners roll into Waco to lend a hand
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

Seven recreational vehicles rolled into town last week, filled with volunteers who have hundreds of hours of homebuilding experience now being put to use on a Waco Habitat for Humanity project.

Eleven volunteers from Texas, Oklahoma, Minnesota and Nevada pulled into Waco on March 3 as part of Habitat for Humanity’s 30-year-old RV Care-A-Vanners program. The team of retired professionals started a two-week project to build a home at 1305 N. 10th St. for a local single mother with three teenage children.

“When we arrived for the Waco project, the walls were there, but we added sheeting to it, we added trusses to it and interior walls to it this week,” RV Care-A-Vanner team leader Fred Winslow said. “This home is going to a mother and her three teenage children, and now they will have a home to spend Christmas in.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Don Beatt, of Minnesota, works on a Habitat for Humanity house at 1305 N. 10th St. He is working with Habitat’s RV Care-A-Vanners program, which organizes volunteers who travel the country to help build homes for people in need.

Winslow, a former pastor living in Spring, said his fellow volunteers are retired from their “real jobs” but enjoy working seven-hour days and constructing homes for Habitat projects nationwide. Winslow, 71, works alongside his wife and other volunteers, including some who have built 40 Habitat homes.

Care-A-Vanner volunteers typically spend two weeks on a project, then take two weeks off as they travel between Habitat affiliate sites asking for their help. The program’s website lists 25 builds starting through the end of the month.

Winslow has been participating for 11 years, and this is his fifth trip to his native Waco to work on a Habitat build, he said.

“I am originally from Waco,” he said. “In fact, my childhood home is a few blocks away from the home we are working on. I owe Waco a great debt of gratitude.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

A message for the new homeowner is left on a stud by traveling Habitat for Humanity volunteers.

The Care-A-Vanners are a great help when they come to Waco, said Iris Hernandez, community engagement coordinator for Waco Habitat for Humanity.

“They come from all over the U.S. Sometimes they’ve never been to Texas, so we welcome them to Texas and tell them they will likely get all four seasons in one week,” Hernandez said. “That is exactly what happened this trip.”

Volunteers will continue to work on the house in Waco until Sunday, before moving on to another project in another community.

“I spent my working life inside, behind a desk as a pastor, so it is fun to travel, see parts of the country,” Winslow said. “It gives you a good excuse to see those parts of the country and we also get to do good work.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Cheryl Blomstrom, of Nevada, works on a Habitat for Humanity build at 1305 N. 10th St. She is working with Habitat's RV Care-A-Vanners program, which organizes volunteers who travel the country to help build homes for people in need.

TV stars and coaches charged in college bribery scheme

Fifty people, including Hollywood stars Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were charged Tuesday in a scheme in which wealthy parents allegedly bribed college coaches and other insiders to get their children into some of the nation’s most selective schools.

Federal authorities called it the biggest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the U.S. Justice Department, with the parents accused of paying an estimated $25 million in bribes.

At least nine athletic coaches and 33 parents, many of them prominent in law, finance, fashion, the food and beverage industry and other fields, were charged. Dozens, including Huffman, the Emmy-winning star of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” were arrested by midday.

“These parents are a catalog of wealth and privilege,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in announcing the results of a fraud and conspiracy investigation code- named Operation Varsity Blues.

The coaches worked at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Georgetown, Wake Forest, the University of Texas, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles. A former Yale soccer coach pleaded guilty and helped build the case against others.

Two more of those charged — Stanford’s sailing coach and the college-admissions consultant at the very center of the scheme — pleaded guilty Tuesday in Boston. Others appeared in court and were released on bail.

Huffman, 56, appeared in a Los Angeles courthouse and was released after posting $250,000 bond.

Her attorney cited her community ties in asking that the actress be released on her own recognizance, which the judge denied.

Huffman is scheduled to appear in court March 29 in Boston.

No students were charged, with authorities saying that in many cases the teenagers were unaware of what was going on. Several of the colleges involved made no mention of taking any action against the students.

The scandal is certain to inflame longstanding complaints that children of the wealthy and well-connected have the inside track in college admissions — sometimes through big, timely donations from their parents — and that privilege begets privilege.

College consultants were not exactly shocked by the allegations.

“This story is the proof that there will always be a market for parents who have the resources and are desperate to get their kid one more success,” said Mark Sklarow, CEO of the Independent Educational Consultants Association. “This was shopping for name-brand product and being willing to spend whatever it took.”

The central figure in the scheme was identified as admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer, founder of the Edge College & Career Network of Newport Beach, California. He pleaded guilty, as did Stanford’s John Vandemoer.

Singer’s lawyer, Donald Heller, said his client intends to cooperate fully with prosecutors and is “remorseful and contrite and wants to move on with his life.”

Prosecutors said that parents paid Singer big money from 2011 through last month to bribe coaches and administrators to falsely make their children look like star athletes to boost their chances of getting accepted. The consultant also hired ringers to take college entrance exams for students, and paid off insiders at testing centers to correct students’ answers.

Some parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and some as much as $6.5 million to guarantee admission, officials said.

“For every student admitted through fraud, an honest and genuinely talented student was rejected,” Lelling said.

Several defendants, including Huffman, were charged with conspiracy to commit fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Lelling said the investigation is continuing and authorities believe other parents were involved. The IRS is also investigating, since some parents allegedly disguised the bribes as charitable donations. The colleges themselves are not targets, the prosecutor said.

The investigation began when authorities received a tip about the scheme from someone they were interviewing in a separate case, Lelling said. He did not elaborate.

Authorities said coaches in such sports as soccer, sailing, tennis, water polo and volleyball took payoffs to put students on lists of recruited athletes, regardless of their ability or experience. Once they were accepted, many of these students didn’t play the sports in which they supposedly excelled.

The applicants’ athletic credentials were falsified with the help of staged photographs of them playing sports, or doctored photos with their faces were pasted onto the bodies of athletes, authorities said.

Prosecutors said parents were also instructed to claim their children had learning disabilities so that they could take the ACT or SAT by themselves and get extra time. That made it easier to pull off the tampering, prosecutors said.

Among the parents charged was Gordon Caplan of Greenwich, Connecticut, co-chairman of the international law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, based in New York. He and other parents did not immediately return telephone or email messages for comment.

Caplan was accused of paying $75,000 to get a test supervisor to correct the answers on his daughter’s ACT exam after she took it. In a conversation last June with a cooperating witness, he was told his daughter needed to “be stupid” when a psychologist evaluated her for learning disabilities that would entitle her to more time to take the test, according to court papers.

The witness described the scheme as “the home run of home runs.”

“And it works?” Caplan asked.

“Every time,” the witness responded, prompting laughter from both.

A number of colleges moved quickly to fire or suspend the coaches and distance themselves from the scandal, portraying themselves as victims. Stanford fired the sailing coach, and USC dropped of its water polo coach and an athletic administrator. UCLA suspended its soccer coach, and Wake Forest did the same with its volleyball coach.

Loughlin, who was charged along with her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, appeared in the ABC sitcom “Full House” in the 1980s and ‘90s. Huffman was nominated for an Oscar for playing a transgender woman in the 2005 movie “Transamerica.” She also starred in the TV show “Sports Night” and appeared in such films as “Reversal of Fortune,” ‘’Magnolia” and “The Spanish Prisoner.”

Giannulli, whose Mossimo clothing had long been a Target brand until recently, was released on a $1 million bond. He left without answering reporters’ questions. He and Huffman both surrendered their passports. Prosecutors in the case said they have agreed to let Loughlin travel to Vancouver for work, but her whereabouts were not clear.

Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, allegedly gave $500,000 to have their two daughters labeled as recruits to the USC crew team, even though neither participated in the sport. Their 19-year-old daughter Olivia Jade Giannulli, a social media star with a popular YouTube channel, is now at USC.

Court documents said Huffman paid $15,000 that she disguised as a charitable donation so that her daughter could take part in the entrance-exam cheating scam.

Court papers said a cooperating witness met with Huffman and her husband, actor William H. Macy, at their Los Angeles home and explained to them that he “controlled” a testing center and could have somebody secretly change her daughter’s answers. The person told investigators the couple agreed to the plan.

Macy was not charged; authorities did not say why.

The couple’s daughter, Sofia, is an aspiring actress who attends Los Angeles High School of the Arts.

A spokeswoman for Loughlin had no comment.

In another case, a young woman got into Yale in exchange for $1.2 million from the family, prosecutors said. A false athletic profile created for the student said she had been on China’s junior national development soccer team.

Prosecutors said Yale coach Rudolph Meredith received $400,000, even though he knew the student did not play competitive soccer. He did not return messages seeking comment.

Sklarow, the independent education consultant unconnected to the case, said the scandal “certainly speaks to the fact that the admissions process is broken.”

“It’s so fraught with anxiety, especially at the elite schools,” he said, “that I think it can’t be surprising that millionaires who have probably never said no to their kids are trying to play the system in order to get their child accepted.”

editor's pick
Former Midway employee charged with hurting student during school
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

A former Woodgate Intermediate School employee turned himself in to authorities early Monday after Hewitt police got a warrant last month charging him with hurting an 11-year-old student while forcing him to the ground in a classroom in October.

Richard Harold Reasor, 69, of Woodway, was taken into custody at the McLennan County Jail on a third-degree felony charge of injury to a child. Reasor was listed as an assistant with the Intensive Behavioral Intervention and Support program at Midway as of last year. He is no longer listed as an employee, but more detailed information about his tenure at Midway was not available Tuesday because staff is out for spring break, district spokeswoman Traci Marlin said.

A Woodgate instructor saw Reasor through a window wrap his arms around the 11-year-old boy and force him to the ground shortly before 1:14 p.m. Oct. 17, during the school day, according to an arrest affidavit. A second educator who was in the classroom stopped the alleged attack by Reasor, the affidavit states.

A school resource officer was called to the room and later interviewed the student. The boy said he was in pain from when Reasor forced him to the ground, and police continued to collect witness statements and investigate the incident, the affidavit states.

“(The officer) then spoke with (the student), and (the student) told (the officer) that Reasor had him on his stomach and had a knee on his back,” the affidivit states. “He advised that Reasor then pulled his arms behind his back. (The student) advised (the officer) that when Reasor had him on the ground it caused him pain.”

According to the Texas Education Agency, Reasor had a secondary English and secondary health and physical education provisional teaching certificate since 1975. His lifetime certificate is now listed as invalid by the State Board for Educator Certification.

Reasor’s standard teaching certificate for being an educational aide expired Feb. 28, according to the TEA.

A Baylor University spokeswoman said he worked security as a temporary employee in the university’s athletics department from November 2010 to August 2015.

Reasor had been released on $5,000 bond by Tuesday.

Bellmead starting review of city charter last updated 58 years ago

The city of Bellmead is taking the first steps needed to tackle the lengthy process of reviewing and updating its charter, which was established in 1955 and has only seen one update since.

Interim City Manager Yost Zakhary said the charter was “really good” in 1955, but is in definite need of changes.

The city council gave the go-ahead Tuesday for staff to start the process of compiling suggestions for the elected officials to consider.

Councilman Travis Gibson said he already has a few ideas in mind for changes to the charter. Gibson said he would like the council to consider adjusting the number of members on the city council. There are six council members, and adding a seventh to avoid tied votes on contested issues is worth looking into, he said.

The Bellmead city charter has only been amended once since it was adopted in 1955, and that was in 1961.

Zakhary said city staff and the council could work toward having a charter election in May 2020.

Each change requires separate approval by a vote of residents to make it into the charter.

“We feel very strongly this will bring us into some regulations, some state laws, some local government, that move us beyond 1955,” Zakhary said.

Mayor William Ridings said he has read the charter all the way through and that there are more than just a few aspects in need of updates.

“There’s quite a bit of it that needs to be changed,” Ridings said.

Zakhary said he and several members of the staff have been through a charter review process before and believe now is the right time to take the task on.

City staff will try to have an initial set of recommendations ready in the next two months for the council to consider, he said.