Ken Anderson settlement reminds Williamson County ‘bad behavior’ still costing taxpayers (TX)

Ten days in jail, giving up his law license. Is this equitable punishment for former Williamson County District Judge Ken Anderson who as a district attorney allegedly hid key evidence in the 1987 trial of Michael Morton, a trial which resulted in Morton’s wrongful conviction for killing his wife Christine and subsequently serving nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit?

Anderson’s “deal” solves problems for the now-retired Williamson County employee and dilemmas for members of the legal industry involved with civil and criminal actions related to the Morton case.

The settlement reportedly prompts dropping of criminal “tampering with evidence” charges as well as resolves a civil suit accusing the former official of professional misconduct in the Morton prosecution.

Morton’s happy with the deal. Courtesy of Anderson and former Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, he’s been to hell and is now back. His receiving a sense of satisfaction from the negotiated agreement is well deserved.

“It’s a good day,” Morton told reporters after the hearing. “I said the only thing that I wanted, as a baseline, is Ken Anderson to be off the bench and no longer practicing law — and both of those things have happened, and more.”

With a penchant for protectionism of peers, the lawyers involved can’t help but be relieved.

Anderson should be ecstatic, but then again, this is the man who at the court of inquiry seeking to determine if he was deserving of criminal charges said:

“I know what me and my family have been through in the last 18 months, and it’s hell,” Anderson said, his voice cracking. “And it doesn’t even register in the same ballpark as what you went through, Mr. Morton, so I don’t know that I can say I feel your pain, but I have a pretty darn good idea how horrible what we’ve gone through for 18 months has been, with false accusations and everything else, and what happened to you is so much worse than that. I can’t imagine what you’re feeling.”

As he had previously, Anderson apologized not for any errors he might have made in Morton’s case but for the system which he said, “screwed up.”

“I’ve beaten myself up on what could have been done different, and I frankly don’t know,” the 60-year-old judge said.

So, maybe he’s not ecstatic. He did, however, hang on long enough after Morton’s October 2011 release to add another two years of service to his taxpayer-funded retirement. Past that, expectations of gratitude or contrition are likely wasted.

Though not front and center in this latest round of Morton case activity, Bradley should too be glad it’s over. He lost his office in 2012 after a contentious primary battle with Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty, a battle that routinely focused on the Morton case. The race included a “Bandana Bandit” often retrofitting Bradley campaign and other signs with a bandana that symbolized evidence found near the Morton house and over which Bradley for years fought DNA testing.

The issue was finally decided by the Texas Court of Appeals and pointed to someone else as Christine Morton’s murderer. With that testing, Mark Alan Norwood was promptly identified, arrested and then convicted in March 2013.

Though Bradley surfaced earlier this year to testify at Anderson’s court of inquiry, he’s largely been out of the public eye.

Not surprisingly, Williamson County taxpayers continue being the big losers as financiers of this corruption. In July, the Austin American-Statesman reported how the latest legal bill associated with the Morton case now brought taxpayers’ county tab to a half million dollars.

The question of Will Morton case show Williamson County ‘tough on crime’ or ‘light on justice’? was long ago answered, but besides being light on justice, the county has also shown its proclivity for being hard on taxpayers’ wallets.

Morton and the Innocence Project spent six years fighting for DNA testing of that stained bandana. The time and resources diverted from other issues or prosecutions merits noting.

Also troubling – and creating expense – was resistance to a Public Information Act request seeking documents from the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office.  Documents were ultimately ordered released by the state Attorney General’s office in 2008 despite objections by the WCSO and its counsel (Bradley) against disclosure citing “the defendant is currently appealing his request for post-conviction DNA testing” and that “release of the information at issue would interfere with the appeal.”

And this is a pattern not unfamiliar for this locale. Months before the Morton case gained prominence, Williamson County officials committed taxpayers to funding bad behavior over good government when settling a federal sexual harassment lawsuit filed by two former employees after a series of unsuccessful attempts to effectively address alleged abusive behavior on the part of then-County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Don Higginbotham.

And before that, a county poli-drama between County Judge Dan Gattis and Duty again highlighted bad behavior over good government. Duty’s effort to remove Gattis from office for misconduct was dismissed by Bell County District Judge Rick Morris who based his decision not on case merits, but on a legal premise called the “forgiveness doctrine” in which Texas law says “An officer may not be removed from office for an act the official committed before election to office.”  As all alleged acts were committed prior to Gattis’ Nov. 2, 2010, re-election, this law functionally barred Duty’s removal effort.

Shortly thereafter a professional conduct violation claim was filed against Duty by a Georgetown attorney. It was quickly dismissed. The Williamson County Commissioners then voted unanimously to also file a State Bar grievance against Duty.

Though the effort was obviously meant to discredit Duty, it interestingly illustrated the time and attention that Higginbotham’s misconduct commanded over a course of years.  Both his judicial peers and other county officials seem to have long had knowledge of the inappropriate and unlawful behavior, but instead of responsibly addressing it, efforts seemed to focus on covering the behavior and shutting down any potential negative consequences. More taxpayer resources diverted.

Higginbotham handled various types of cases including probate matters. His judgment – the same judgment that apparently subjected county employees to systemic, routine sexual harassment and verbal abuse – impacted the lives and lifelong property accumulations of many people.

Thankfully, another non-stellar member of the Williamson County judiciary is also soon leaving. Legal settlements fund some behaviors, mask others.

Will this changing of the guard bring real integrity to one of the nation’s fastest growing counties? Time will tell.

Cronyism and bad behavior (not to mention accumulation of public debt) have truly been some of Williamson County’s most well-known accomplishments in recent years. You can always hope for improvement.

Years ago Bob Dylan was known for singing about the times a-changin’. Maybe that’s what’s coming. Then again, he also wrote “there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” That’s certainly what Williamson County has had.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist and the editor of Watchdog Wire – Texas. As a Policy Analyst with Americans for Prosperity – Texas, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. Lou Ann is the Creator and Online Producer at Estate of Denial®, a website that addresses probate abuse via wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney as well as other taxpayer advocacy issues.

Share
Commentary, Featured