Once the most prolific and highest- paid indigent defense attorney in San Antonio, a former lawyer who forged three judges’ signatures on forms for attorney fee payments was sentenced on April 21 to 10 years in state jail and a $10,000 fine.
Hilda Valadez is in the Bexar County Jail preparing to enter the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to serve her sentence, said Patrick Ballantyne, the Bexar County assistant criminal district attorney who prosecuted the case.
In State of Texas v. Valadez, filed in the 227th District Court, Valadez pleaded guilty to securing execution of a document by deception, a second-degree felony, and to forgery, a third-degree felony. As part of her sentence, she also had to pay $79,670 in restitution, $519 in court costs and continue “cooperation with the federal authorities.”
Visiting Judge Stephen Ables has retained jurisdiction over the case for six months.
Ballantyne said the move indicates that the judge might be open to “shock probation,” in which a person is jailed for a time and then serves out the sentence on probation.
Joe Hoelscher, Valadez’s criminal defense attorney, said, “What happened with Hilda—and this is how a lot of people get started—it didn’t happen overnight. It was over the course of an entire career. Anytime we make even the smallest ethical mistake, we put ourselves at risk of following the same path. I think every attorney at some point has started down that road, because we are human. Hilda was never able to step up on the right path before it got out of hand.”
Trey Banack, assistant Bexar County criminal D.A. and chief of the white-collar crime division, noted that Valadez was the highest-paid indigent defense attorney in Bexar County from 2008 to 2011. He said her crimes came to light when a clerk saw an expense form and questioned whether a judge actually had signed it. The judge had not, and the matter was reported to law enforcement.
“We believe that she was forging the judges’ signatures because we believe she was overbilling on the work she was performing for her clients. If the judges had seen how much she was billing, they would have cut her fees,” said Banack. “As a lawyer, I want all lawyers to be held to a higher standard. … It does bother me when someone is unethical and commits illegal acts by using their bar license.”
Hoelscher denies that Valadez overbilled the county. He said she just wanted to get paid faster by expediting her expense forms through the district clerk’s office.
Valadez is no longer an attorney. The Texas Supreme Court on Jan. 15 accepted her resignation in lieu of discipline for alleged violations of attorney disciplinary rules related to her criminal charges.
226th District Judge Sid Harle, whose signature Valadez forged, said that his “overriding concern” about the case is that Valadez was a “talented” and “competent” lawyer who was bilingual in English and Spanish. She had experience as a prosecutor and defense lawyer overseeing “the highest-level cases in the county,” including capital murder, death penalty cases.
“It’s sad to me that somebody of that caliber would get in this situation and have her career devastated and end up getting disbarred and be labeled … a forger. It’s tragic,” Harle said.
The Aug. 23, 2012, true bill of indictment charged Valadez with 46 counts: securing execution of a document by deception of $100,000 or more but less than $200,000; theft of $20,000 or more but less than $100,000; and forgery and tampering with a governmental record for each of the 22 allegedly forged forms.
A March 11 court’s admonishment and defendant’s waivers and affidavit of admonitions shows that Valadez pleaded guilty to just two counts: securing execution of a document by deception and one forgery charge.
She judicially confessed and admitted in a March 11 waiver, consent to stipulation of testimony and stipulations that between December 2009 and September 2011 she intended to defraud Bexar County by submitting attorney fee expense claim forms without authorized judges’ signatures, which caused the county to issue 15 checks with a combined value between $100,000 and $200,000. She also confessed to forging District Judge Sid Harle’s signature on a Feb. 12, 2010, expense form for $600.
She confessed to a “scheme” of forging the signatures of Harle and district judges Angus McGinty and Sharon MacRae. She used “cut-and-paste” and “hand-forgery” methods to forge the judges’ signatures, according to the stipulations.
“While Judge McGinty was out of the state at a training seminar, Hilda Valadez submitted two vouchers with a handwritten signature purporting to be that of Judge McGinty,” said the stipulations.
For Harle’s and MacRae’s signatures, Valadez “cut out an existing signature” of the judge “and placed it on the ‘Judge Presiding’ signature line of a blank attorney pay voucher. Defendant then photocopied this forgery multiple times, producing a number of ‘presigned’ blank vouchers,” said the stipulations.
It continued, “Defendant was able to avoid the scrutiny of judges by presenting clerks of the courts with vouchers that appeared to have already been approved by the presiding judge. Defendant was also able to expedite her payments by avoiding the time necessary for the judges’ review and transmission to the auditor’s office through the district clerk’s office.”
By forging 21 attorney pay vouchers, Valadez received payment of 13 checks for a total of $103,020. After getting credit for the “flat fees” she would have received, “the balance of her overbilling is $79,670,” said the stipulations. [See chart, Fraudulent Payments From Hilda Valadez's Forgery]
In her plea bargain, Valadez was ordered to pay the $79,670 as restitution. Hoelscher said that she already paid $40,000.
Also in her plea bargain, Valadez agreed to “continuing cooperation with the federal authorities.”
Hoelscher said there is an ongoing investigation and declined further comment.
“I’m bound by nondisclosure agreements on some things, so I can’t really discuss those ongoing investigations,” he explained.
There was no answer when Texas Lawyer called McGinty’s home. Public records do not list a phone number for MacRae, who retired from the bench.
Harle said he’s “upset” about the fact that “one person’s greed” has cast a shadow on the integrity of the county’s indigent defense system.
“The sad thing about this is: I think it’s the best system. I think you get the best lawyers who are willing to sacrifice from their personal practices,” he said.
Attorneys who accept appointments to represent indigent defendants are paid less than they would get from a private criminal defense client, and they invest more time and effort than their payment reflects, he said.
“We rely, in essence, on volunteer lawyers here in Bexar County to deal with the very important indigent defense cases,” Harle said. “The whole system, frankly, rests upon the integrity of our volunteer lawyers.”
The county has instituted “safeguards” to stop others from doing what Valadez did, he said. She was able to bypass the judges because she took vouchers directly from the court to the district clerk’s office, but Harle said the county has “stopped that process.” Also, the county created a peer review committee to review vouchers when judges question them.
Harle said he wants the public to have confidence that their taxpayer dollars are well spent on the indigent defense system.
“This shows in this particular circumstance it did not happen. I feel sad about that. That’s why we instituted changes. We are going to make sure our volunteer lawyers are more closely patrolled and the voucher system looked at closer,” he said.