Forgiveness doctrine: Texas-size loophole for county officials’ misconduct

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The “forgiveness doctrine” is a little-known Texas statute that serves as a legal loophole to provide incumbent county officials, upon re-election, a “clean slate” with regard to acts of misconduct.  As incumbents across Texas prepare for the 2012 elections – including some with controversial or questionable records – voters should be aware that re-election coupled with the “forgiveness doctrine” reduces the means by which elected officials can be held accountable.

Section 87.0001 of Texas Local Government Code states, “An officer may not be removed under this chapter for an act the officer committed before election to office.”  Officials to which this law applies appear to include district attorneys, county attorneys, county judges, county commissioners, county clerks, district clerks, district/county clerks, county treasurers, sheriffs, county surveyors, county tax assessor-collectors, constables, justices of the peace and “a county officer, not otherwise named by this section, whose office is created under the constitution or other law of this state.”

Williamson County taxpayers learned of the “forgiveness doctrine” earlier this year when it was used to dismiss an action seeking to remove County Judge Dan A. Gattis from office for “incompetence and official misconduct.”  The Gattis case, dismissed by Bell County District Judge Rick Morris, illustrates this law’s power and ability to circumvent public integrity investigations.  The lawsuit was based on five separate allegations claiming Gattis hired outside legal counsel without obtaining advance approval from the County Commissioners Court as per mandated open meeting laws.  Merits of the allegations were not considered.  Instead, the lawsuit was dismissed because each allegation had occurred prior to Gattis’ November 2010 re-election.

In today’s world, laws aren’t necessarily about protecting taxpayers or other citizens.  They too often are tools used by legal industry insiders for their own and their allies’ protection.  The “forgiveness doctrine” certainly seems to be such an example available to county officials.

The filing period for candidates in Texas 2012 primary races runs through Dec. 15.  This time frame will undoubtedly see many county incumbents confirming their re-election intentions.

As the primary season approaches, accountability, transparency, respect for and adherence to the rule of law are themes which voters are likely to continue attaching extra importance.  Discussions of taxation, government overspending and debt will take place  – sometimes in contexts that also incorporate public trust and integrity issues.

The “forgiveness doctrine” is not a likely topic at local candidate forums.  It also is no reason to discount competent, ethical incumbents.  Its availability for avoidance of accountability, however, is knowledge which well serves the voting public when it comes officials with questionable records seeking continued public support and access to public dollars.

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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