The Williamson County Commissioners voted today to file a grievance with the State Bar of Texas against County Attorney Jana Duty. While specifics were not cited, violations of state bar ethics codes are alleged. Despite the Williamson County Public Policy Coalition calling on both County Judge Dan A. Gattis and County Commissioner Ron Morrison to recuse themselves in any vote regarding Duty, the five-member court voted unanimously in favor of the grievance filing.
Following the vote, Jana Duty released this statement: “If there was any merit or substance to this complaint, it would have been politicized and paraded before the public by this court months ago. The timing speaks volumes and I am sure the citizens of Williamson County see right through this for the retaliatory action that it is. I will not be deterred from continuing to fulfill my duties as County Attorney.”
Much of the recent conflict between Duty and the Commissioners Court relates to the handling of sexual harassment allegations against now-retired County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Don Higginbotham. Williamson County faces a federal lawsuit over this matter and as more is learned about the long-term actions and attitudes of Higginbotham and other public officials, the integrity of the county’s administrative and judicial systems come increasingly into question.
On Friday, Bell County District Judge Rick Morris dismissed a Duty-filed lawsuit seeking to remove Gattis from office for alleged incompetence and official misconduct. The suit’s dismissal was based not upon the merits of five specific allegations cited in the court filing, but rather a legal premise called the “forgiveness doctrine” which ties to a section of the Texas Local Government Code that reads “An officer may not be removed from office for an act the official committed before election to office.”
In response to the ruling, Duty said “Basically, once County Judge Dan A. Gattis was re-elected, on Nov. 2, 2010, the slate was wiped clean and any alleged misdeeds committed during his prior term, are forgiven.” Duty also acknowledged having no right to appeal making “this civil case closed.”
While comments on Morris’ ruling at media outlets like The Austin Bulldog and the Austin American-Statesman reflected little prior knowledge of the “forgiveness doctrine,” many weighing in said use of this clause subverts government accountability and expressed sentiments that such a “free pass” loophole both insults taxpayers and rewards officials most adept at hiding misconduct.
Another lawsuit in Williamson County’s 368th District Court is also pending. In this filing Duty asserts the Commissioners Court had no legal right to move $101,801 out of her budget so as to establish a separate legal advisor’s position under their control.
County-based courts like that of former Judge Higginbotham and his associates are a common venue for adjudication of probate cases. Legal improprieties and systemic abuse frequently occur as probate venues and probate instruments (wills, trusts, guardianships, powers of attorney) are increasingly used to loot assets of the dead, disabled and incapacitated and, with abusive guardianships, hijack personal freedom.
Scenarios suggesting patterns of corruption and misconduct become of special interest to those who view the probate system and its surrounding culture as an important public policy issue. Based on Williamson County officials’ actions and the county being home to Sun City and other significant retirement communities, this situation is one to watch.
Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas Foundation and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.