January 2011

Demanding Accountability

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Williamson County taxpayers funding bad behavior over good government
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Lou Ann Anderson
By Lou Ann Anderson

One could say WilcoLeaks has arrived as Williamson County residents experience a new wave of governmental transparency providing taxpayers an important view of the county government’s nature, inner-workings and use of taxpayer funds. The public outing of the County Judge Dan A. Gattis/County Attorney Jana Duty turf war has created important questions regarding attitudes about and uses of taxpayer funds. As protectionism, cronyism and disregard for the rule of law – all at the public’s expense – seem the prevailing themes emerging from this tale, the question becomes do taxpayers want hard-earned dollars to fund bad behavior or good government?

Sexual harassment and other allegations of profane behavior on the part of former County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Don Higginbotham are a recurring element in all that’s transpired. This apparently open and acknowledged behavior pattern peaked in late 2009 with formal complaints to county officials. Throughout 2010, it appears Gattis and Duty wrangled over this plus other commissioner court actions some of which Duty termed retaliatory. The year brought Higginbotham’s “retirement,” but as other proposed remedies to address the situation fell short, and even reasonably questionable as good faith efforts, a federal lawsuit alleging verbal abuse, sexual harassment and retaliation was filed November 2010. The suit details what appear as cover-up efforts, authoritative abuse and even employee intimidation.

Fast forward to the new year. Duty has filed a law suit seeking to remove Gattis from office for “incompetence and official misconduct” claiming five occasions, two having to do with Higginbotham, on which the judge hired outside legal counsel without proper authorization. Gattis responds citing Duty’s “incompetence” and charges her with pursuing a political agenda. Judge Rick Morris of the 146th Judicial District Court of Bell County, has been appointed as a visiting judge to preside over the case. Tactical moves and power alliance delineations are now in full swing with Gattis hiring Martha S. Dickie, a former State Bar of Texas president with strong ties to the central Texas’ legal industry, while Duty continues working with attorney James Nassour of the Austin law firm Keel & Nassour L.L.P.

In a first round of motions, Dickie is seeking dismissal of the lawsuit based on a legal premise known as the “forgiveness doctrine” which wipes the slate clean each time an official is elected or reelected. Duty’s side argues, however, the provision as being negated since media reports of the alleged offenses occurred after Gattis’ Nov. 4 re-election and were thereby not available for consideration in the voting process.

Just this week, Georgetown attorney Kerry E. Russell filed a complaint with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley accusing Duty of a Class A misdemeanor offense through “intentional destruction of a local government record.” In these political waters, the muddiness of this action’s motivation provides certain clarity that legal gamesmanship is afoot. Meanwhile, “something for everyone” written policies provide cover to both sides leaving this as one more open litigation front now on the table.

Content of the complaint’s “local government record” involves Higginbotham’s conduct and once again suggests county officials’ disregard of public trust issues in lieu of their own self interest. The memo at issue is a Duty-generated response to a 2008 Williamson County Court at Law judges’ request that Gattis support their legal representation in any matters by private counsel over Duty’s own staff. The story comes full circle when The Austin Bulldog quotes Jana Duty as indicating one of the memo’s sensitive matters not included in the incomplete version attached to the complaint concerned allegations that County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Don Higginbotham was sexually harassing women who worked in his office. Duty is additionally quoted saying, “That letter contained embarrassing information on the judges and I didn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.”

Following the Russell complaint, Williamson County Commissioners have announced their intention to file a grievance against Duty with the State Bar of Texas.

While Jana Duty has a responsibility to pursue this matter, assignments of right and wrong, good and bad are far from appropriate. Per Duty’s own admission, the latest complaint against her establishes a troubling timeline of concerns related to Higginbotham’s conduct dating back to 2008 with the three other County Court at Law judges (Wright, Brooks and McMaster), along with Gattis, having complete awareness. The year 2009 apparently brought an escalation of impropriety leading to a filing of complaints with the county’s Human Resources Department – again, it seemed everyone knew. Kimberly Lee and Sharon McGuyer v. Williamson County, the lawsuit filed by two former Williamson County employees, describes a Jan. 10, 2010, meeting as “Jana Duty came in and said, ‘Let me give y’all a hug. I’m glad y’all finally came forward. I don’t know how y’all have put up with this abuse this long.’…” The lawsuit also names Wright and McMaster along with 368th District Court Judge Burt Carnes as having “witnessed and observed Judge Higginbotham’s discriminatory and retaliatory behavior.”

This situation demands accountability on numerous fronts. Higginbotham’s conduct is a frequent focal point – conduct of which its impropriety never seems in dispute. This says much about the character and judgment of officials who not only seemingly condoned inappropriate and illegal actions, but also apparently allowed them to become a non-productive workplace spectacle and distraction thus showing no regard for individuals in their employ who have a reasonable (and legal) expectation to a non-hostile work environment.

Williamson County residents (and non-residing taxpayers) were betrayed as office turmoil and a threatening atmosphere doubtfully enhanced any efficient, judicious or respectful use of public funds. And let’s not forget Williamson County’s judiciary. It appears a good part of the “lunch bunch” knew the score and tolerance of acts – seen by many as illegal and official misconduct – speaks to their personal and professional credibility. If the legal industry’s commitment and ability for policing their own is to be believed, these folks failed to the detriment of many parties including litigants coming into the Williamson County legal system. When the emerging scenario depicts a judiciary distracted by the implications of Higginbotham’s conduct and with an ongoing pattern for disregarding for the rule of law and violations of professional conduct, why should anyone before these courts have confidence their case is receiving responsible treatment? This is the situation that Williamson County officials have created – at taxpayer expense.

At EstateofDenial.com, we follow the increasing use of probate venues and probate instruments (wills, trusts, guardianships, powers of attorney) to loot assets of the dead, disabled and incapacitated. With such actions rarely treated as criminal matters, targeted families seeking justice are relegated into the pay-to-play civil legal system. County-based courts like that of former Judge Higginbotham and his associates are a common venue for adjudication of such cases. Legal improprieties and systemic abuse are common in this area. Between Williamson County’s actions and it being home to Sun City and other significant retirement communities, scenarios suggesting corruption and misconduct become of special interest to those who view the probate system and its surrounding culture as an important public policy issue.

A 2008 national ranking named Georgetown number two on a “100 best places to live and launch” list. In response, we wrote Your Town, USA – a Great Place to Live, Launch and Loot?. The column discussed the exploitative flip side that community prominence can create. While still a timely piece, it brings a sad irony that Williamson County’s most visible looting today is that of public trust by elected officials.

Dwindling tax revenues, depressed property values and juggling budgetary items are the issues on which Williamson County officials should be focusing. Instead, legal maneuvering and strategizing political cover are far more likely the order of the day. As if other economic conditions don’t provide enough challenge, this situation must play out and in doing so will remain an ongoing distraction from county business and an ongoing expense of public funds.

Past that, taxpayers must decide if their interests (and future hard-earned dollars) are best served funding bad behavior or good 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 and a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas Foundation. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com

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