Williamson County Attorney (TX) seeks public trial on Commissioners Court grievance

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In a positive move for open government and transparency, Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty has requested a public trial on a grievance filed against her with the State Bar of Texas by her own county’s Commissioners Court.

Duty said in a written statement:

The members of the Commissioners Court requested a private hearing. They want the hearing to be private, so the true facts of this case and the evidence will be presented behind closed doors and will remain secret. By my election to proceed in District Court, the public will be given the opportunity to hear and see all of the evidence, not just the limited portions that members of the Commissioners Court want them to hear.

Since the February grievance filing, Duty has denied wrongdoing and termed the action “politically motivated harassment.” A case can be made for that point of view as the last year has brought a public escalation of dissension between Duty and the Commissioners. Duty has an active lawsuit before Williamson County’s 368th District Court. In an October 2010 filing she asserted 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. Despite the suit, within days Hal C. Hawes was hired and began serving as the court’s legal adviser. The lawsuit, meanwhile, is still pending.

Based on allegations of incompetence and official misconduct by County Judge Dan Gattis, Duty next filed a lawsuit seeking to remove him from office. In Janaury, Bell County District Judge Rick Morris declined reviewing the case merits and instead dismissed the lawsuit based on a motion filed by Gattis attorney Martha S. Dickie calling for invocation of the “forgiveness doctrine,” a Texas Local Government Code section that states “An officer may not be removed under this chapter for an act the officer committed before election to office.” Dickie asserted the same rule applies to re-election and noted that each of the lawsuit’s allegations occurred prior to Gattis’ November 2010 re-election.

In her statement, Duty says 18 out of the original 24 complaints against her have been dismissed with six moving forward to the next stage of the process. Duty describes the remaining six claims as follows:

1) not retaining a letter that I wrote the County Court at Law Judges in June of 2008,
2) that I used attorney Steve Mierl in early 2009 to help me with a complaint from a former employee who was claiming that I wrongfully fired him. The Commissioners allege that this was without their approval,
3) that I am responsible for the court having to settle the Higginbotham sexual harassment case,
4) that I repeated a comment that a commissioner made in executive session,
5) that I made a comment to a reporter that I believed District Attorney John Bradley was being untruthful when he said that “several agencies” had looked into the wrongdoing of Judge Gattis and that they all concluded that no one had done anything wrong, and
6) when I filed the removal suit against Judge Gattis, I included some privileged communications in the pleadings.

The first of the final six claims appears to have already been reviewed and dismissed when Georgetown attorney Kerry E. Russell earlier this year filed a professional conduct violation claim against Duty. The complaint was first filed with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley accusing Duty of a Class A misdemeanor offense through “intentional destruction of a local government record” and copied to the State Bar of Texas. Submitted on Jan. 13 in the weeks between the Gattis removal suit filing and its dismissal by Judge Morris, Duty termed the move as retaliatory. The State Bar of Texas dismissed the claim as per the Feb. 20 edition of The Williamson County Sun.

The claim involving the sexual harassment case involving Judge Don Higginbotham is an especially interesting allegation. Our Williamson County lawsuit suggests county not so “safe” for all column provides background on the case while Williamson County taxpayers funding more bad behavior over good government discusses the settlement. Was approving the lawsuit payout about protecting taxpayer interests or diminishing scrutiny of prior actions taken by the Commissioners Court? That’s a question worthy of review. And isn’t former County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Don Higginbotham – not Jana Duty – ultimately responsible for the $375,000 payout – or does personal responsibility have no place in Williamson County government?

Duty describes next steps of the State Bar of Texas public hearing process as including discovery in which county Commissioners Court members will be required to answer questions, requests for relevant documents substantiating the allegations and oral depositions in which participants testify under oath.

Upon conclusion of these steps, a public hearing will be scheduled. She says:

The public will then be able to see all of the evidence, as it will be presented in open court. I strongly believe that the citizens of Williamson County deserve to see and hear all of the evidence, not just the limited information that the members of the Commissioners Court want to release. I look forward to the depositions and the public hearing, because these proceedings will finally afford me the opportunity to present all of the evidence. I am confident that when the evidence is finally revealed, it will overwhelmingly show that all of the complaints are wholly without merit and the sole reason they were brought was for politically motivated harassment. The evidence will show that at all times I have taken steps to protect the best interests of the citizens of Williamson County, even when I knew that it would likely result in political retaliation, as it has in this instance. This entire process will likely take between a year to two years.

Duty ends her statement saying “This politically motivated harassment has not and will not deter me from doing the job I was elected to do: holding the County Judge and the Commissioners Court accountable to the people of Williamson County.”

The 2012 elections will likely fuel one of our most active and contentious election cycles in recent years. Political races at all levels of government will spark citizen interest – perhaps even new crops of candidates. Two Williamson County Commissioners will be up for re-election as also will County Attorney Jana Duty.

However it comes down, this pending action should be an election issue. While “confidentiality” will be claimed regarding specifics of the action, obstruction, document release game-playing, contrived scheduling conflicts, technicalities or any other legal gamesmanship “tricks” used to impede its process should be exposed so that Williamson County taxpayers can factor such moves into their voting decisions.

And should the proceeding move forward in an unobstructed fashion, Duty’s public trial request will be a victory assisting voters to make informed decisions regarding the future of their county government.

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 Foundation – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.

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