Debra Coffey is well-recognized among Tarrant County Republican women as a dynamic grassroots activist and advocate of stricter penalties for drunken drivers.
She is also known as the wife of county Criminal Court No. 8 Judge Daryl Coffey, who has been on the bench since 1991.
Now her role as vice president of government affairs with a company that supplies breath-alcohol-ignition interlock devices for drunken-driving defendants is drawing attention.
This week, Tarrant County commissioners named the company as sole provider of interlock devices ordered by judges here. That includes drunken-driving defendants who appear before her husband.
Smart Start of Irving was chosen over five other companies to supply the devices in Tarrant County, records show. A committee of county probation and purchasing officials recommended Smart Start after evaluating the six companies on qualifications, experience, responsiveness, proposed approach, management, references and cost to defendants.
Smart Start was rated higher than competitors in every area except cost to defendants, records show.
Tarrant County commissioners confirmed the award with a unanimous vote Tuesday. The contract goes through Aug. 31, 2013, with an option for a 12-month renewal.
There was no discussion of the matter at Tuesday's meeting, Judge Glen Whitley said Thursday.
The selection was made as a result of bidding, and the recommendation for a sole provider made sense, he said.
While judges could order those convicted of drunken driving to use a variety of interlock devices or defendants could choose which to use, the county's probation department "felt like it was in the best interest of the county to make that uniform," Whitley said.
He said Debra Coffey was not part of the bidding process.
She said, "I didn't participate in any of it whatsoever."
She referred questions about that process to Smart Start's vice president for marketing and operations, who did participate.
Coffey is listed as one of two vice presidents for the privately held company in 2011, according to records with the secretary of state's office.
Daryl Coffey said he first heard about the award Wednesday but had no input on the selection.
Because of his wife's role as Smart Start's director of government affairs, most of her dealings are with states and countries, he said.
"She hasn't had any day-to-day dealings with this county office or any county office in the U.S.," he said.
He said he has been mostly away from the courthouse to recover from a shoulder condition. "I swear on a stack of Bibles, I haven't been here," he said. "If you want to see my hospital records, I'll show them to you."
Coffey also said he does not plan to seek re-election in November 2014.
He also said state law may not give judges much discretion in requiring use of the devices. They measure drivers' blood-alcohol level before a vehicle can be started. Judges must order them placed in defendants' vehicles after two or more convictions for drunken-driving offenses and in cases where drivers are under age 21, Coffey said.
State law, however, gives judges discretion in ordering the interlocks for offenders with fewer than two drunken-driving convictions. Judges also have discretion in how long the devices must be used -- although they must be used for at least half the period of supervision.
Some interlock devices don't report accurately, which is a problem for the courts, Coffey said. He said he has always recommended the devices made by Smart Start or Draeger Safety Diagnostics of Irving. Draeger also submitted a bid but was not selected.
In its request for bids, the county stipulated that the devices must have the most current technology, such as cameras, to provide evidence that the defendant or offender was the person using the device.
The defendant buys the device and pays for installation and a monthly fee for monitoring.
A March report by the county said it had about 1,100 devices installed for offenders on probation or defendants on pre-trial release.
Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705