New TYC chief has survived tough battles before


By R.G. RATCLIFFE

AUSTIN — Jay Kimbrough is no stranger to foul-ups, including one that
almost cost him his life, left him with survivor's guilt and gave him a
sense of purpose in serving as the conservator to clean up the Texas
Youth Commission.

As a 19-year-old Marine, Kimbrough was part of a hot landing helicopter
attack on May 10, 1967, in the Quang Thien Province against North
Vietnamese Army soldiers.

A spotter aircraft had intended to mark the enemy position with a red
smoke grenade, but instead dropped a green smoke, safe-drop-zone
marker. The helicopter in which Kimbrough was riding headed straight
into the enemy position.

His helicopter took fire. Men inside were hit. The door gunner ordered
Kimbrough out, and he went despite the 16-foot drop. Within minutes he
was "gut shot" twice. Bandaged by a corpsman, he lay wounded and
surrounded by the enemy for hours before being rescued by his platoon
sergeant.

The wound resulted in a colostomy, nerve damage in his leg and nine
months of recovery in a Corpus Christi military hospital. But Kimbrough
counts himself as lucky, because he was not among the 58,000 U.S.
troops killed in Vietnam.

"I am a miraculous survivor. Part of the exercise is to be a worthy
survivor," Kimbrough said.

"I'm a dead man walking. So I try to live pretty fast ... And look at
what I've gotten to do."


A varied résumé

Kimbrough's experience has included holding local offices in Bee
County, running for Congress as a Republican and serving Govs. George
W. Bush and Rick Perry in overhauling three troubled state agencies. He
also was the state's director of homeland security after the 2001
terrorist attacks.

As an assistant district attorney in 1990, Kimbrough and his wife were
invited to a state dinner at the White House because he had thrown a
Bee County barbecue for then-President George Bush. Kimbrough shared a
table with Vice President Dan Quayle and Secretary of State Alexander
Haig.

Kimbrough is an unabashed patriot and unashamedly emotional. He choked
up recently during his Senate confirmation while telling the debating
senators that he thought he had fought in Vietnam for democracy and
perhaps had survived to improve the lives of the youth and the guards
at TYC.

The agency has been racked by allegations of staff physical and sexual
abuse of incarcerated youth and violence by youth against the guards.

But Kimbrough is not without controversy.

•In 1997, Kimbrough headed a state agency that gave a
private-security-guard license to a convicted felon, who later killed a
man at a bar where he provided security. Though not at the agency when
the license was issued, Kimbrough took the public heat about inadequate
criminal background checks on private security guards.

•In 2006, Kimbrough oversaw state agents who seized evidence from a
federal court as part of a state criminal investigation. The federal
judge accused the state of behavior bordering on the criminal.

Attorney General Greg Abbott told the judge the seizure occurred
because of a miscommunication between Kimbrough and other senior
members of his office.

•The biggest question about Kimbrough arose out of the role he played
in searching for Democratic House members who broke a quorum in 2003 by
fleeing to Oklahoma to stall a congressional redistricting bill.

Kimbrough coordinated state police from the office of House Speaker Tom
Craddick and called FBI agents in Oklahoma to see if they would
intervene to help bring the runaway lawmakers back to Austin.

"He's a less-than-honorable political hack, and he'll do whatever he's
told to do," said state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth. "My fear (about
Kimbrough as the TYC conservator) is his appointment is about
covering-up high-level malfeasance."

Kimbrough said most of the Democratic legislators have misunderstood
his role in the redistricting debate.

He said he was asked in to give legal advice, not as the state's
director of homeland security.

He said he coordinated Department of Public Safety officers in the hunt
for the lawmakers as a liaison between them and the legislative
leaders.

And he said he only called the FBI agents in Oklahoma because Craddick
asked him to. Kimbrough said he never expected the FBI to become
involved in a civil issue.

"I'm sorry, when the speaker of the House asked me to make the phone
call, I said, 'Oh, baloney,' but I made the phone call," Kimbrough
said.

Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, the only senator to vote against
Kimbrough's confirmation as TYC conservator, said it is that "good
soldier" attitude that worries him.

"He's a loyal Marine," Shapleigh said. "Is he there to take the hill,
or is he there to keep the lid on the evidence?"

The core of the TYC controversy is that a Texas Ranger discovered in
February 2005 that two administrators at the West Texas State School in
Pyote were having sex with youth in their custody.


'Bundle of action'

Two years went by with no prosecution of the men, despite the Ranger's
efforts to get Abbott's office involved and a staff member in Gov. Rick
Perry's office being aware that no action had been taken.

Kimbrough worked for both Perry and Abbott at the time.

Kimbrough said he has no intention of involving himself in the probe of
TYC because that is up to the trained investigators, the Travis County
district attorney and the news media.

He said he has faith that the whole story will come out eventually.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, led the defense of Kimbrough in the
Senate.

Whitmire, skeptical of Kimbrough's appointment as the TYC conservator,
thinks that most of the complaints about him are just politics after
getting to know him.

"He's a very independent bundle of action," Whitmire said. "When he
gets done with TYC, I'd like him to take on the adult (prison) system."

r.g.ratcliffe@chron.com


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