A complaint filed this week in federal court casts doubt over the neutrality of the judge who oversaw bankruptcy settlement talks involving Corizon, once the nation’s largest prison health care provider.
David Jones, the chief bankruptcy judge for the Southern District of Texas, and Elizabeth Freeman, his former law clerk and a successful bankruptcy attorney, have secretly been in a romantic relationship for years, according to the complaint, which was obtained by Insider.
Last year, Corizon began a controversial maneuver known as a Texas Two-Step, splitting the company into two parts, one with most of its assets, known as YesCare, and one with most of its debts, known as Tehum, which then filed for bankruptcy. The Two Step was effectively designed to protect YesCare’s assets, including public sector contracts worth more than $1 billion. According to a legal filing, Tehum director Isaac Lefkowitz said the Two Step can be used to “force plaintiffs into accepting lower settlements.”
Freeman represented YesCare Corp. in the settlement talks. And the talks were overseen by Jones.
At least 350 malpractice suits against Corizon and tens of millions of dollars in unpaid invoices are now folded into that proposed deal, which awaits approval by the creditors. It offers prisoners who were injured or died under Corizon’s care only $5,000 each.
While the complaint, submitted on Wednesday in the Southern District of Texas, is currently not available for public access on the docket, Insider obtained a copy from Michael Van Deelen, who filed the suit pro se. It alleges that Jones retaliated against him for “outing” the judge’s allegedly inappropriate relationship in a previous legal filing.
Jones was appointed in May by US Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Lopez to act as a mediator in the Tehum case, to oversee talks between the company and its largest creditors. Freeman signed off on Jones’ appointment as mediator, according to a stipulation and agreed order submitted in the bankruptcy docket. Neither Jones nor Freeman have disclosed their alleged relationship, according to Van Deelen’s complaint.
Frank Ozment, who represents an Alabama prisoner, Tracy Grissom, who said she was subjected to negligent Corizon care, called the claims “very disturbing” if true.
“It’s very important that the mediator be neutral,” Ozment told Insider. “If the allegations suggest that the mediator was not neutral, then that could potentially bear a lot of weight on whether the plan is reasonable.”
Jones has denied any romantic relationship with Freeman, according to the complaint.
Jones, Freeman, and YesCare did not immediately respond to queries.
A million-dollar home
Van Deelen’s case dates back to June 2020, when he filed a shareholder suit in Texas state court against employees of engineering company McDermott International, alleging fraud and a breach of duty. Six months earlier, McDermott had declared bankruptcy. Van Deelen says he and his wife lost their entire investment.
McDermott was represented in the case by law firm Jackson Walker, one of the country’s top bankruptcy firms. Freeman clerked for Jones for six years, and she went on to become a partner at Jackson Walker, where she was one of the attorneys assigned to the McDermott bankruptcy. Van Deelen’s case was ultimately “removed” to Jones’ bankruptcy court, according to Van Deelen’s complaint.
Freeman now runs a Houston-based law office, The Law Office of Liz Freeman, that specializes in bankruptcy litigation and reorganization. Van Deelen claims Freeman left her prestigious job at Jackson Walker because “the relationship between her and Defendant Jones was made generally known.”
The document alleges that, while working the McDermott case, Freeman was Jones’ “live-in girlfriend” in a home worth more than a million dollars. Exhibits attached to the complaint show that Jones and Freeman have since June 2017 been listed as co-owners of a four-bed, two-bath, 3,800 square foot home on a leafy street in Houston that was assessed at $1.07 million.
Meanwhile, two people, “probably Freeman’s parents” moved into a $1.5 million home that Jones owns in Coldspring, an hour outside of Houston, according to another exhibit. The complaint alleges that Freeman had been living in that property since 2007, and that Jones purchased it in 2016.
Van Deelen said in the suit that he learned of the relationship after receiving an anonymous letter in March 2021, also attached as an exhibit. It describes alleged corruption that involved Jones, Jackson Walker, and Freeman “in a scheme in which corporate bankruptcy filers would hire Jackson Walker to represent them and then get favorable treatment from Defendant Jones because of his amorous relationship with Freeman.”
Matt Cavenaugh, a partner at Jackson Walker, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
According to the complaint, the letter detailed the “corruption involving Judge David R. Jones” and his romantic relationship with Freeman.
“Instead of personally avoiding the McDermott bankruptcy case because of his relationship with Jackson Walker attorney Freeman,” the complaint says, Jones “assigned the case to himself.” He didn’t disclose that he had a personal relationship with Freeman, according to the complaint.
Van Deelen submitted the letter in a motion seeking to get Jones removed from his case. Judge Marvin Isgur, another bankruptcy judge in the court, later denied it.
Van Deelen said that when he filed the complaint, he also hand delivered it to Jones in the Houston courthouse. After making his way through the maze of offices, Van Deelen said he turned a corner to find Jones eating a sandwich. When the judge saw who it was, “he turned white,” Van Deelen said.
He said Jones accepted the envelope without saying a word.