Archives for: June 2010
Tomorrow morning there will be a hearing in a Collin County District Court that may decide the future of a District Judge -- Suzanne Wooten, elected in 2008 to the 380th District Court.
For over a year now, the Collin County Courthouse has been a buzz with rumors that District Attorney John Roach, Sr. was using a grand jury to investigate 2 sitting judges; Judge Greg Willis (now the GOP nominee for District Attorney) and Suzanne Wooten.
Sources close to both judges have styled the investigations as being politically motivated.
Judge Greg Willis was exonerated by a Grand Jury in January. To date, no action has been taken by any Grand Jury against Judge Wooten. In fact, the Observer was told in January that all investigations against Wooten had ended. Not so.
Attorneys for Judge Wooten learned yesterday that the District Attorney's office would re-convene a recently released Grand Jury in order to seek an indictment against her. In an attempt to stop the DA, they have filed a "Motion to quash illegally re-assembled Grand Jury". The hearing on that motion will be at 9:00 AM in the 366th District Court, with Judge Ray Wheless presiding.
The motion tells only one side of the story, but it does present a compelling picture of what one court house regular called "an abuse of judicial resources" by the first Assistant District Attorney Greg Davis and Christopher Milner, the Chief of the DA's Special Crimes Unit.
Judge Wooten's motion tells the tale of a political vendetta that began the day after she was elected by defeating long time Judge Charles Sandoval.
Wooten's attorneys note that, "the first time a sitting district judge was challenged, let alone defeated, in a primary election in Collin County history." Her attorneys charge that the day after the election, "Judge Charles Sandoval reportedly had a lengthy meeting meeting with executive level members of the Collin County District Attorney's Office", and that Sandoval believed that the only reason he lost the election was that Wooten, "must have cheated".
According to Judge Wooten's motion:
Shortly after the primary, the DA sought and obtained from Judge Curt Henderson Grand Jury subpeonas related to an investigation of Wooten. Because Grand Jury proceedings are secret, it wasn't until July of 2009 that Judge Wooten heard rumors that she was being investigated. More subpeonas were issued in July and again in August of 2009.
In September, 2009 Judge Wooten, "was made aware by her bank that there were 'unusual record activities' on her personal, former business and campaign accounts. Based on this information [Wooten] concluded that there could actually be an investigation pending against her." During this period, Chris Milner refused to admit or deny the existence of an investigation to Wooten's lawyers, despite their repeated inquiries and offers to cooperate.
During a meeting between Judge Wooten's lawyers and Mr. Milner held in October, 2009, Milner "demanded that [Judge Wooten] resign her bench by the following Wednesday, as 'Judge Roach (the DA) looks favorably upon public servants who accept responsibility for their actions and resign'." When asked what Judge Wooten was charged with, Milner responded, "She knows what she did.". Milner then stated that Judge Wooten, "needed to immediately resign to avoid them 'taking her law license, her family, her home, her liberty, and her reputation'."
But the Grand Jury never issued an indictment. In fact according to the motion, while the Grand Jury asked that the case be presented to them for a vote, "Milner refused to present the case and allegedly stated 'He was going to wait for a better Grand Jury'."
Six Grand Juries have come and gone since the investigation of Suzanne Wooten began. None have indicted her, nor even been given the opportunity to vote on a "True Bill" or a "No Bill".
The current Grand Jury's term officially ends on June 30. They held their last session last week on June 24th. On June 28th, Harry White, an Assistant Attorney General (acting as a deputy prosecuter appointed by John Roach) requested Judge Wooten appear before that Grand Jury on June 30th on a possible "bribery charge".
Fearing that Milner had finally found his compliant Grand Jury, Suzanne Wooten's attorneys filed the "Motion to Quash" arguing that the Grand Jury's term had ended and that only the court, and not the DA, could call them back into session.
For two years now, the courthouse has been rife with rumors of the investigation. for several months, Judge Wooten recused herself form hearing criminal cases, and has been unable to defend herself against unknown charges. As noted above six Grand Juries have come and gone. One investigation (against Greg Willis) ended with exoneration, but Wooten's case has not been allowed to come before a up or down vote by a Grand Jury.
During this period, the Collin County Observer heard persistent rumors that the DA would not allow bench trials (trials before a Judge, instead of a jury) in two District Courts -- the 380th (Judge Suzanne Wooten) and the 429th (Judge Jill Willis) -- both presided over by women. An email attached to Wooten's motion provides real evidence that the rumors were true. In the email, Greg Davis instructs one of his Chief Prosecutors to "conduct a TBC ["trial before the court", or a bench trial] in the 380th only if you have no interest in the outcome of the case"... "Those same guidelines are to be used in the 429th as well." The email further reminds the prosecuter that he has the authority to plead "any case set for trial before it was transferred to the 429th."
- John Roach's allegations against Judge Wooten have never been made public.
- Judge Wooten's allegations against DA John Roach charge that the DA is manipulating the justice system in trying to engineer outcomes he desires; not only forum shopping Judges, but also Grand Juries.
Why, if as Milner told her attorneys in 2009, he had "boxes and boxes of evidence" against the Judge Wooten, he has waited 2 years to finally present to a Grand Jury, and one whose term was ended or at best ending.
The hearing tomorrow should determine if this Grand Jury will be allowed to vote, or if the District Attorney will have to take his chances with yet another panel of Collin County citizens.
UPDATE June 30 11:00 AM
After a hearing in which no witnesses were called, Judge Wheless has ruled in favor of the Motion to Quash.
His decision was that the Grand Jury's term had ended and that the District Attorney could not legally re-call the Grand Jury into session.
Wheless's ruling means that Roach will have to present the case to another Grand Jury, if he is still seeking an indictment of Judge Suzanne Wooten. Wheless's decision is seen by most courthouse observers as a significant set back to the reach of DA Roach.
D Magazine's Front Burner Blog commented on the case this morning. Editor Wick Allison opines that John Roach and Charles Sandoval are trying to, in effect, overturn the election of Judge Wooten.
"In Re: Grand Jury Proceedings", "Motion to quash illegally re-assembled Grand Jury" filed in the 366th District Court on June 29, 2010 by Hon. Suzanne Wooten, movant.
Two local judges targets of grand jury investigations, CCO, Nov. 19, 2009
Court releases Willis Grand Jury report, CCO, Jan. 26, 1010
Monday, June 7, 2010
The Dallas Morning News Editorial Board
We all like to think that freedom of speech is an inviolable constitutional right. But, for instance, if someone with money doesn't like a blog post about them, the mere threat of a lawsuit often is enough to silence even the most outspoken. The expense of hiring a lawyer and defending oneself in court can have a chilling effect on speaking one's mind.
Valid criticism is silenced, unfair or potentially illegal behavior goes uncorrected, and free speech is stifled – all because the person being criticized has enough money to haul the accuser into court and bankrupt him into submission. In legal terms, this is know as "strategic lawsuit against public participation," or SLAPP. In 27 states, anti-SLAPP laws give courts discretion to reject meritless harassment lawsuits designed to make people shut up.
Texans have no such protection. Various legislators have tried but failed repeatedly since the 1990s to pass anti-SLAPP legislation. Now U.S. Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, is co-sponsoring legislation that could bring relief to victims of harassment cases in states where such protections don't exist. Here's why such a law is needed:
Blog participation is exploding, and consumers increasingly are using their keyboards to vent frustrations over being cheated or mistreated by companies. Once posted, those complaints can fall under state defamation laws. In other cases, lawyers for a company criticized on the Internet often sue by claiming "tortious interference" – that the blogger is hindering a company's right to conduct business.
In Kalamazoo, Mich., Justin Kurtz found himself in such a bind. He vented online, saying his car was towed without cause by a Kalamazoo company, T&J Towing. Hundreds joined a chorus of criticism of T&J, which sued Kurtz for defamation, seeking $750,000 in damages.
"There's no reason I should have to shut up because some guy doesn't want his dirty laundry out," Kurtz told The New York Times. "It's the power of the Internet, man."
Anti-SLAPP legislation might have helped when The Galveston Daily News , author Carla Main and law professor Richard Epstein questioned Dallas developer H. Walker Royall's role in an eminent domain case involving private land seized to build a luxury marina near Galveston. They became swamped in litigation.
Anti-SLAPP laws do not – and should not – halt attempts by people to seek valid redress when they've been libeled. Instead, actions typically involve efforts to immerse a defendant in mountains of pretrial expenses such as legal consultations, depositions and evidence-gathering, even though the lawsuit itself has no merit in court.
People with loads of money rarely face the fear of economic ruin when they speak their mind, but for most Americans, harassment litigation can abruptly halt the free flow of information and discussion. Without anti-SLAPP, this growing silence can become deafening.
The Observer comments:
Yes, these suits, brought by government officials against taxpayers, happen here in Collin County.
- Lovejoy: Tales From The Dark Side
- Judge orders Plano man to keep his distance from mayor, other officials
Collin County district Clerk Hannah Kunkle issued a press release Friday on the Texas Ranger's raid on her office. Said Ms. Kunkle:
Ms. Kunkle would have us believe that the Texas Rangers were interested in a bit of campaign misconduct. Unfortunately, the press seems to also want us to see last week's raid as a response to some on-the-clock electioneering.
I wish that were the case.
The Texas Rangers have better things to do that to question 5 witnesses, develop over 100 pages of evidence, go to an Austin appeals judge for a search warrant, and then seize dozens of county hard drives over a little unethical campaigning.
The real issue with the District Clerk's Office - the issue that drove the investigation forward, and that caused the large-scale raid was that, according to witnesses, the District Clerk's Office had engaged in an organized conspiracy, perhaps for as long as 20 years, to defraud the taxpayers of Collin County.
District Clerk supervisors maintained a double set of books on employee time off. One set, the official one was turned into the county's HR department for payroll processing. The other was a record of illegal time manipulations designed to allow employees additional paid time off that they were not entitled to.
I spoke to a source at the County Auditor's Office Friday and asked him how such a large-scale fraud could go undetected by audits over so many years. He replied that while the Auditor was working to improve the audit process, such an ingrained system of double-bookkeeping would be almost impossible to detect - unless a whistle blower tipped them off to the problem.
But for years, and until this election, no such whistle blower appeared.
Internal emails and documents discovered by the investigators showed District Clerk's supervisors adding dozens of names and time adjustments to the "Blue Book" where extra time off was granted and tracked. Employees routinely asked for entries to be made in the Blue Book. Several emails refer to "bb" time as an alternative to the County's official Paid Time Off (PTO). An example, "Lauri, I clocked in at 9:15 this morning, so I'll use my lunch and PTO or bb time, OK?"
Although Patricia Crigger, as Chief Deputy District Clerk was a major driver of the "Blue Book" entries, virtually every single supervisor made entries into the Blue Book. Emails show almost 1/2 the employees of the department were the beneficiaries of the illegal Blue book time off.
It seems impossible for Hannah Kunkle not to know what was going on.
Now, the county does not keep its personnel policies top secret. All employees and especially supervisors are aware of the policies on PTO. Every employee that took part in this conspiracy must have known it was illegal.
The emails and evidence collected by Ranger Davidson make clear that the culture at the
County District Clerk's office was that of dishonesty. Cheating in time sheets was OK. Hiding records and reporting false data was OK. Stealing was OK.
Under Hannah Kunkle, the supervisors and employees were corrupted. They lied, they stole and they believed it was their right to do so. They engaged in an organized conspiracy to cheat the system. Cheating was rewarded with paid time off.
There were no rewards for being honest, and so no one snitched. There existed a culture of dishonesty.
That is the problem that caused the raid.
The citizens of Collin County were cheated by employees of their justice system. The District Clerk's office is an important and vital adjunct to our courts. They not only keep the court's records, they accept filing fees, forward child support payments, and administer over $3 million in several dedicated bank accounts.
Many defendants whose records the District Clerk's Office receives committed crimes of less import than this, by the court personnel themselves.
This scandal will not be cleaned up until every supervisor who made a Blue Book entry is prosecuted, and every employee who accepted Blue book time is fired.
Cleaning house will not be easy. Hannah Kunkle is an elected official.
If Ms. Kunkle and Ms. Crigger are indicted and convicted of misconduct, they would be automatically removed from office. But the criminal process will take some time and meanwhile the perpetrators of the conspiracy could remain in place.
The Commissioners Court can not fire Hannah Kunkle. She can only be removed by a district judge after a jury trial in what is called a Removal Petition hearing. The Commissioners Court or any single commissioner can ask a judge for a Removal Hearing. (In fact, any Collin County citizen can petition the District Court for a Removal Hearing.)
The Commissioners Court can not fire her staff either. As an elected District Clerk, only Ms. Kunkle can fire a member of her staff. The Commissioners can not keep Patricia Crigger from assuming the post of District Clerk next January. What the court can do is to try to use their power of the budget to squeeze the District Clerk. They can refuse to approve expenditures and to approve new hires. (Monday's Commissioners Court agenda has a new hire in the District Clerk's office needing approval. There is also a request by Ms. Kunkle to advertise for another open position. I hope both will be denied.)
The Commissioners Court needs conduct their own internal investigation, and then if warranted, file a petition for the removal of Hannah Kunkle as District Clerk. The Commissioners Court, the County Administrator, the County Auditor and the County HR Department should also begin a thorough investigation of all departments in order to determine if the cancer in the District Clerk's Office is an isolated case or widespread.
Our society is based on the rule of law. Our rule of law is administered by our courts. We must have complete faith that our courts are run by ethical, law abiding public servants. Here in Collin County, we will need to clean our own house, or risk corrupting the very court system we rely on for our justice.
The City of McKinney is predicting a $5 million budget shortfall in tax revenue.
Next year, the McKinney ISD will decrease the number of teachers, increase class sizes and likely have to spend down $1.2 million in its reserves.
Times are hard. Property values and tax collections are down. Unemployment and deficits are up.
But not at the McKinney Economic Development Corporation. The MEDC is funded with 1/2 cent of sales tax revenue and operates with a taxpayer paid budget of about $8 million.
Which is certainly enough money to send a group of politicians on a junket to China. The MEDC has announced it will send State Representative Ken Paxton, McKinney Mayor Brian Loughmiller and MEDC Chairman David Pitstick on an expense-paid trip to the World Expo in Shanghai, China.
Unfortunately, the taxpayers are buying these politicians round-trip tickets.
From a city of McKinney press release:
The Collin County Observer has obtained the sworn affidavit by Texas Ranger A.P Davidson that was used to obtain the search warrant of the Collin County District Clerk's office yesterday. We are also posting the Search Warrant, 110 pages of attachments and the Return. The Return lists 18 pages of items seized in yesterday's raid.
In his sworn statement, Ranger Sergeant Davidson tells of 5 District Clerk employees who came to him with evidence of off-the-books time sheets used to pay District Clerk employees for time spent on Patricia Crigger's campaign.
The Affidavit and its attachments are damning. While I must point out that all these charges are still only allegations and must be proved in a court, the evidence shows that Ranger Davidson and his investigators spent considerable time gathering their facts before asking for a warrant. They present a compelling case.
The affidavit charges that, "On or about the dates of December 28, 2009 and June 1, 2010, in Collin County, Texas, Patricia Wysong CRIGGER, Sherry L. BELL, Rebecca A. LITTRELL, Amy E. MATHIS, Lorrie M. ROBERTSON, Marcia E. SIMPSON, Judy A. BLAZIER, and others did then and there, with intent to establish maintain and participate in a combination and in the profits of a combination, collaborate with each other and conspire to commit the offenses of Tampering with a Governmental Record, and Theft by a Public Servant by agreeing with each other that they would engage in conduct that constituted said offenses, namely, the falsification of official Collin County time and attendance records for employees of the Collin County District Clerk's Office and the maintenance of a separate system of accounting for their own additional program of unauthorized paid leave at Collin County Taxpayer expense..."
"On or about the dates of December 28, 2009 and June 1, 2010, in Collin County, Texas, Patricia Wysong CRIGGER, Sherry L. BELL, Marcia SIMPSON and Sandra K. HILL, public servants, with intent to obtain a benefit, did knowingly and intentionally misuse government property and services, namely, Collin County computers, printers, and copiers that had come into their custody and possession by virtue of their employment as public servants...."
Patricia Wysong Crigger
Ranger Davidson interviewed and took testimony from 5 District Clerk employees who charged that they were either pressured into working for the Crigger campaign or told they would be rewarded with "Blue Book" time for any PTO (paid personal time off) taken to campaign.
"Blue Book" time was paid time off that was not authorized by county policies, but instead kept by the supervisors on Excel spreadsheets, and later in binders. One informer told Davidson that the "Blue Books" began in the early 1990's after Hannah Kunkle was elected as District Clerk. When "Blue Book" time was taken by an employee, their supervisor would falsify county records to show that the employee was at work. Employees were reminded to leave their "Access Cards" with their supervisors when taking "Blue Book" time off, so that the supervisor could clock them in as 'present'.
One informant told Davidson that Kunkle had always authorized employees to receive "Blue Book" holidays off, including such holidays as, "Spring Day", "Summer Day", "Fall Day", "Winter Day", "Christmas Shopping Day", "Birthday Day", and two extra Holiday days to be used to extend three-day holiday weekends into four-day weekends.
The affidavit makes accusations against 6 ranking employees of using the "Blue Book" to reimburse employees time taken off for campaigning and/or for campaigning on County time and with County computers and printers. They are:
- Hannah Kunkle, the elected District Clerk
- Patricia Wysong Crigger, Chief Deputy District Clerk (and Republican Party nominee for District Clerk)
- Rebecca Littrell, Senior Administrator
- Sherry Bell, Civil/Family Manager
- Amy Mathis, Deputy District Clerk
- Lorrie Robertson, Civil/Family Supervisor
- Marcia Simpson, Deputy Minutes Clerk
- Judy Blazier, Criminal Supervisor
Davidson charges that at least 29 employees (out of 63 in the District Clerk's Office) received "Blue Book" time off during the Crigger Campaign. In the 24 page Affidavit, Davidson lists several examples of employees being reported as present, but not having logged into their computers and of having 'out-of-office' messages on their phones.
The Ranger's raid on the court house resulted in 68 items being seized, including computer hard drives, removable storage drives, calendars, binders, and 2 employee Access Cards.
The charges as laid out by the Texas Rangers show a District Clerk's office that encouraged and pressured employees to use their legitimately earned leave to campaign for Ms. Crigger, and then re-paid them with illegal "Blue Book" time. It describes an operation where the "Blue Books" effectively corrupted a large percentage of the employees, encouraging them to lie, steal and cheat the County's taxpayers.
The affidavit details an environment where a County Department became, in effect, a campaign office for Patricia Crigger, and where effective controls by independent auditors and management were non-existent.
In the weeks and month ahead, much will be written and talked about on how a Collin County operation could, for decades, flaunt County policies and steal payroll time. But first, Law Enforcement will have to step in where the lack of effective controls and personal integrity failed the citizens of our county.
Links to relevant documents:
Affidavit for Search Warrant, signed by Texas Ranger Sergeant A.P. Davidson, June 1, 2010
Exhibits attached to Affidavit (Warning, large file!)
Search Warrant for the Collin County District Clerk's Office, signed by Judge Michael E. Keasler of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, dated June 1, 2010
Return and Inventory of items seized during the search, signed by Texas Ranger A.P. Davidson and dated June 3, 2010
Here is the statement from DPS in Austin on yesterday's search warrant and raid of the District Clerk's office:
At about 2 PM yesterday, my phone and email started buzzing me with news that Texas Rangers and DPS Troopers were serving a search warrant on the District Clerk's office at the Collin County Courthouse.
According to unconfirmed reports, agents closed all the offices of the District Clerk for several hours. I have heard rumors (but I have not been able to get an official confirmation) that several county computers were seized.
WFAA, Channel 8 covered the raid on the evening news, but they only reported that there was a raid and that, "the investigation is focusing on some employees of the district clerk's office, but no other details were available."
The Observer was told by some courthouse sources that the search warrant was issued in Austin. I do not know if any investigation was initiated by the State Attorney General or by the Collin County District Attorney. There are many rumors as to the reasons for the raid, but as of now, none have been confirmed.
I have been unable to reach the District Clerk, Hannah Kunkle for comment.
The District Clerk's office serves the 9 Collin county District Courts, keeping all court records and filings. The Collin County district clerk's office also operates a passport service.
The District Clerk is an elected position. Ms. Hannah Kunkle has served as the District Clerk for over 20 years, but did not seek re-election this year. Her Chief Deputy Clerk, Patricia Crigger won the Republican Primary in March - since she does not have a Democratic opponent, Ms. Crigger will be the next District Clerk as of January 1, 2011.
While several of the current rumors link the election to the warrant and raid, I have to say that I have not been able to confirm.
As I find out more about the raid and any ongoing investigation, I will update the news on The Observer.