Citizen Requests Investigation

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Georgetown Resident Files Complaint with Travis County District Attorney

Complaint Names District Attorney, City Attorney, and Council Member

On July 13, eight citizens told the Georgetown City Council they wanted an investigation into numerous matters reported by The Austin Bulldog and the Williamson County Sun.

As reported by The Austin Bulldog July 18, the matters of concern include a $13,600 payment made to Council Member  that was facilitated by City Attorney Mark Sokolow; Sokolow’s hiring as the city attorney involving a violation of the Open Meetings Act and working under a contract that was never legally executed; Sokolow’s violation of the Georgetown City Charter by hiring of an assistant city attorney without getting city council approval; and the city’s ongoing resistance to releasing public records requested by the media.

At that meeting, Georgetown Council Member Patty Eason’s motion for such an investigation was not even discussed by the council, because no other council member would second the motion.

John Bradley
John Bradley

John Bradley, the Williamson County district attorney, looked into a request for an investigation—filed by The Austin Bulldog May 11—concerning the payment made to Council Member Berryman. Bradley dismissed the matter without prosecution, as reported by the Williamson County Sun July 18.

But, like the famous baseball player and manager Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”

And one Georgetown citizen just can’t let it go.

Ross Hunter
Ross Hunter

Ross Hunter has requested an investigation by the Travis County district attorney’s office into the actions of Williamson County District Attorney Bradley, Georgetown Council Member Pat Berryman, and Georgetown City Attorney Mark Sokolow “for their failure to act in accordance with the law, failure to investigate, and failure to correct, violations of the Georgetown city charter and State law, and their failure to act in accordance with their fiduciary responsibility to the city and citizens of Georgetown and the state of Texas, with regard to:

“the payment of $13,600 from city revenues ordered by the city attorney to be paid to council member Pat Berryman as a reimbursement, yet waiving the requirement to produce receipts, such waiver of requirement being in contradiction of standing legal advice given to the City by the Texas Municipal League, and such waiver being made without the production if (sic) any legal theory for such contradiction, the entire action being performed with the direction of the Georgetown city council sitting in formal session.”

Bradley, Berryman, and Sokolow did not immediately respond to telephone messages and e-mails requesting comments about Hunter’s request for an investigation.

Why file this complaint?

“I am just an ordinary citizen,” Hunter said. “My hope is that an organization with power will compel our elected officials to give us the straight story on what they’re doing,” said Hunter, who was one of the citizens who addressed the council on July 13 and called for an investigation.

“Citizens are concerned enough about the lack of transparency in our city government that they are going to the council meeting to try to get their representatives to talk to them.

“Not only are the people we elected not responding to us, but now it seems they care more about finding the whistleblowers who first alerted us to their shady dealings.”

What does Hunter hope to achieve?

“I want City Attorney Sokolow to explain his legal reasoning for Berryman’s payment, which he’s never done in public.”

Pat Berryman
Pat Berryman

Hunter noted that Council Member Berryman had been instructed by the city manager in a letter that said she needed to provide receipts to be reimbursed for her actual expenses. She never did so, and instead waited 17 months, until Sokolow was hired as a new in-house city attorney, and got him to facilitate the payment. (For a complete account, see The Austin Bulldog report of May 4.)

“My point with Sokolow is, if all we have to do is change attorneys to get a different opinion so Berryman can get the money, then if we get a different attorney will she have to give it back?”

Why bring District Attorney Bradley into the complaint?

“I want District Attorney Bradley to explain his legal reasoning for discounting the attorney general opinions presented with the complaint.”

Procedures to handle the request

Chris Walling, a criminal investigator with the Public Integrity Unit, in an e-mail to Hunter sent today, acknowledged receipt of the complaint and said “it has been sent for review.” Walling’s e-mail states:

“Once the case has been reviewed we will decide if it is something we have venue over or if a crime has been committed. If the case does get sent back to me for investigation then I will notify you that we have opened a case.”

Gregg Cox, who heads the Special Prosecution Division, explained to The Austin Bulldog how such requests are handled. He said complaints are reviewed by the investigator, in this case Walling, and sent to one of the division’s assistant district attorneys. That attorney will examine the complaint and make a recommendation about whether to open an investigation. How long it takes the attorney to make a recommendation depends on his case load.

Internal guidelines within the Special Prosecution Division, also known as the Public Integrity Unit, call for every complaint to reach Cox’s desk within 30 days, he said, along with an assistant district attorney’s recommendation. Cox said he makes the final decision about whether a case will be opened.

Briefed on the general nature of the complaint, Cox said, on the surface it appears that District Attorney Bradley acted within his “prosecutorial discretion” in not pressing charges against Council Member Berryman.

Cox said his office is limited in what it can investigate and prosecute in another county, generally matters involving criminal activity involving state government, insurance fraud, motor fuels tax fraud and workers’ compensation fraud.

Asked to comment on Bradley’s statement, quoted in the July 18 Sun, “…this (Berryman’s payment) is a civil matter that should be handled by the city,” Cox said a civil suit could be filed seeking Council Member Berryman to return any funds she was not entitled to.

A civil lawsuit, Cox said, “Can air the facts out” and not run the risk of trying to prosecute someone under a statute that is overly broad or vague, the risk being that a failed prosecution might result in getting the law ruled unconstitutional and thrown out.

“I have seen cases filed by citizens,” Cox said.

This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The Austin Bulldog has many other investigative projects waiting to be funded. You can bring these investigations to life by making a tax-deductible contribution.

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Related Content

Council Member Berryman Expenses Detailed

Posted Tuesday November 9, 2010 4:36pm

Berryman Expenses Finally Detailed
in Response to Request and Complaint

After the Fact Compilation
Now Open to Public Scrutiny

Investigative Report by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Pat BerrymanGeorgetown Council Member Pat Berryman has at last provided a report of the expenses she claims to have incurred, and for which she was retroactively issued a payment of $13,600 by the City of Georgetown.

The 20-page report comes 10 months after Berryman was paid, a result of The Austin Bulldog’s open records request and subsequent complaints filed with several law enforcement agencies.

“The attached expense report is accurate to my recollection and has been verified by the research I have done with city staff, and my own records,” Berryman states in an October 15 cover letter.

“It was a difficult task because so much time has elapsed from this time period. I think it should be noted that the Georgetown City Council was not required by the city resolution to provide documentation of any kind. Therefore, it was not anticipated this would occur.

“None of the other council members have been or are being required to provide this in depth information regarding the reimbursement for expenses. I must say that it is unfair to be singled out in this manner.”

Berryman only state employee on council

The Austin Bulldog targeted Berryman because she was the only state employee serving on the council during the period covered by her $13,600 payment, July 2008 through December 2009. As a state employee, she was prohibited by Section 40(b) of the Texas Constitution from drawing a salary for service as an elected official. Berryman should prove her expenses are legitimate and not a means to circumvent the salary prohibition, according to opinions issued by the Texas Attorney General.

City Attorney’s Performance Evaluations

Posted Wednesday September 1, 2010 1:56pm
Updated Sunday September 5, 2010 1:15pm
City Attorney’s Performance
Evaluations Finally Made Public

But Questions Arise Concerning
Information Deleted from Evaluations

by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Georgetown City Attorney Mark Sokolow was tenacious about trying to keep his performance evaluations from being released. The Austin Bulldog filed an open records request for copies of these evaluations on May 16, 2010.

Mark SokolowSokolow stated his case for withholding his evaluations in his May 28 letter to the Attorney General and, when he got a decision he didn’t like, he filed a lawsuit to contest the decision—without asking the City Council for permission.

He could have lost his job over this and, as reported by The Austin Bulldog on August 24, there was evidence that powerful Republican officials and ordinary citizens alike were fed up with the negative publicity being generated by Sokolow's actions and were calling for his dismissal.

Instead, the Georgetown City Council on August 24 voted 7-0 to direct him to drop the lawsuit and release his performance evaluations, minus information the Texas Attorney General ruled may be withheld for attorney-client privilege.

George GarverAfter the council meeting that night, Mayor George Garver told The Austin Bulldog that in the closed-door executive session, the council decided to devise a standard way of evaluating the performance of not only the city attorney but that of the city manager and city secretary, all of whom report directly to the council.

Tommy GonzalesOn August 25, Council Member Tommy Gonzales told The Austin Bulldog that the city lacks a good method of formally evaluating the work of these key city officials. “No expectations have been set, and no goals or objectives either,” he said. “We're trying to find the best way to protect Georgetown and be fair to all parties concerned.”

Deletions raise questions

The Austin Bulldog received Sokolow’s performance evaluations August 25, seven pages in all. Some of the information on every page has been redacted (blacked out).

Sokolow To Be Terminated?

Posted Tuesday August 24, 2010 1:24am
Updated 12:28pm
Updated 4:25pm
Georgetown City Attorney
Ready for the Firing Squad

Sokolow Increasingly Viewed
as a Problem to be Solved
by Ken Martin
© The Austin Bulldog 2010

Mark SokolowThe Roman orator and philosopher Cicero once wrote, “The good of the people is the greatest law,” and that seems to be a guiding principle in how the Georgetown City Council deals with the fate of its chief legal counsel, City Attorney Mark Sokolow.

None of the four council members interviewed would speak on the record about how they intend to vote in tonight’s council meeting, and no one but the council members can decide whether Sokolow keeps or loses a job that pays $130,000 a year.

George GarverMayor George Garver cannot vote except to break a tie and says his focus for action this week has been to establish an orderly and discreet process for considering whether Sokolow goes or stays, and under what conditions.

Nevertheless there is a possibility that Sokolow will be terminated just over 10 months after he started work last October 19 with the responsibility to establish a new in-house legal staff.


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