County Attorney Steps Up Payments Investigation

0
514
Dan Gattis
Dan Gattis

Williamson County Attorney Steps Up Investigation of Improper Payments

District Attorney’s Claimed Investigation Not Confirmed by Agencies He Named

 
Dan Gattis
Dan Gattis
Mike Davis
Mike Davis

For a while it looked like Williamson County Judge Dan Gattis and Round Rock attorney Mike Davis were out of the line of fire and would not be prosecuted for county payments to Davis for representing Judge Don Higginbotham of Williamson County Court at Law No. 3 against claims of sexual harassment.

Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said his office had conducted an investigation and found no criminal conduct in Davis inappropriately billing the county to represent Higginbotham.

Nor did Bradley find reason to prosecute Judge Gattis for possibly encouraging Davis to represent Higginbotham at county expense without getting authorization of the others on the commissioners court.

But Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty isn’t dropping the matter. She is seeking an independent investigation into whether the law was broken when Gattis allegedly arranged for attorney Mike Davis to defend Higginbotham.`

Duty has raised the ante by lining up an investigation by getting a commitment for a special prosecutor who would pursue criminal charges if the independent investigation provides evidence that the law has been broken.

“Bradley and Gattis may think I’m dropping it,” Duty told The Austin Bulldog. “They should know better. I’m not sweeping this under the carpet.”

Bradley’s investigation questioned

John Bradley
John Bradley

Did District Attorney John Bradley conduct the investigation that he said he did, as reported by the Austin American-Statesman and Williamson County Sun?

On October 10, the Sun reported Bradley said he had conducted a joint investigation with the Texas Rangers, the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, and two lawyers from the Attorney General’s office.

“Everyone involved came to the same conclusion and declined to pursue a criminal case,” Bradley told the Sun. “I closed the case and informed Jana Duty that there was no substance supporting a criminal accusation.”

On November 10, the Sun again reported that Bradley stated the investigation found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Jana Duty
Jana Duty

County Attorney Duty contends that Bradley’s investigation never took place.

“It’s so frustrating that John Bradley can outright lie and nobody can call him on it,” Duty said. “He never interviewed witnesses, never collected evidence, never wrote a report,” Duty said.

“I’ve never seen a district attorney work so hard to help a person who is a potential criminal defendant get cleared.”

Did Bradley investigate?

The Austin Bulldog contacted each of the agencies Bradley said were involved in the investigation. Two said they were first contacted by County Attorney Duty, and District Attorney Bradley contacted them later.

Texas Rangers—Ranger Matt Lindemann, who is stationed in Georgetown, said, “We had a couple of meetings with Jana Duty, and I spoke to Mr. Bradley. But other than that we didn’t go out and do an investigation.”

Public Integrity Unit—Gregg Cox heads this unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s office. He said that initially, County Attorney Duty asked the Travis County District Attorney’s office to provide a special prosecutor who would agree to press charges if an investigation by the Texas Rangers found evidence to warrant prosecution. District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg turned down that request, Cox said, because “we were stretched too thin,” with involvement in prosecuting former U.S. Representative Tom DeLay and a state representative.

On November 19, Cox said that John Bradley called him “probably more than six weeks ago” and said he had decided to look into the matter.

“I’ve never seen any case file,” Cox said. “I discussed the facts with him on the phone, how I would approach the investigation if I did it. We discussed getting the Attorney General’s office involved,” Cox said.

Asked if Bradley contacted the Attorney General’s Prosecution Assistance Division, Cox said, “I don’t know.”

“The people who are involved decide his (Bradley’s) budget,” Cox said, referring to the Williamson County Commissioners Court. “He could wind up in an uncomfortable situation.”

Prosecution Assistance Division—The Attorney General’s press office took eight days to respond to the question of whether the Prosecution Assistance Division conducted an investigation into Mike Davis’ billings to represent Judge Higginbotham. Spokeswoman Lauri Saathoff e-mailed an answer on November 30: “The Texas Attorney General’s Office does not comment on or acknowledge investigations.”

Given that Bradley may have overstated the scope of any investigation, Duty feels obligated to do what she thinks need to be done to see justice served.

“Someone is guilty of trying to steal $7,665 from taxpayers—Mike Davis, or maybe Gattis authorized him to do it,” Duty said. “It was not legal. To come back and say there’s nothing wrong didn’t sit well with me.”

Facts not in dispute

Davis billed the county and was paid a total of $7,665 to represent Higginbotham. The problem is that the Williamson County Commissioners Court had not hired Davis to represent Higginbotham in this case.

These charges for Higginbotham’s legal representation were discovered when County Attorney Duty asked the County Auditor’s office to review Davis’ billings.

Davis’ bills indicated he was working on “County Court at Law Judges’ Litigations.” Davis was already assisting the county attorney’s staff in Heckman et al v. Williamson County et al, Cause No. 06-453-C277, a class action lawsuit involving all the county court at law judges.

Davis submitted bills to Williamson County on January 29, February 25, April 30, and May 28 of this year totaling $10,135 for work on the Heckman lawsuit.

After the auditor’s office had reviewed the charges at Duty’s request, Judge Gattis signed a letter to Davis dated August 6, asking Davis to review the billings, verify the amount, and “issue a check or credit memo to Williamson County.”

Davis subsequently identified $7,665 in the billings for his time spent working to represent Higginbotham, including $4,395 in January, $904 in April, and $2,366 in May.

On August 11, Davis submitted a credit memo for $7,665. In other words, he will work off what he owes the county by offsetting future bills by that amount.

While the facts are not in dispute, the larger question is whether these facts warrant further investigation and possible criminal prosecution.The district attorney has dismissed the matter. The county attorney is not letting it go.

Duty challenges commissioners court

County Attorney Duty has been at odds with the Williamson County Commissioners Court and District Attorney Bradley for some time, giving rise to allegations that Duty’s push for an investigation of Mike Davis’ payments is retaliation.

Duty said this isn’t about retaliation. She said she represents the citizens of Williamson County and part of her job is providing oversight to make sure the Williamson County Commissioners Court adheres to the law.

She has crossed swords with the court on several occasions recently.

In early September, she held a press conference to blow the whistle over the unannounced implementation of a program to monitor county employees’ Internet traffic. She said because of the sensitive nature of work done by her legal staff in investigating pornography, prostitution and juvenile offenses, it would be inappropriate for the county to monitor their Internet use.

On September 28, the commissioners court approved a reorganization to transfer attorney Hal Hawes from Duty’s office into a newly created position as legal advisor to the commissioners court, and cut her budget to pay for Hawes and another employee.

Duty filed a lawsuit over that action, alleging the commissioners violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it voted to move Hawes and cut her budget.

In response to the lawsuit, on October 5 the commissioners court again voted to amend the budget to move Hawes.

On October 15 the commissioners issued a statement to announce “the reasons behind our decision to hire an attorney to work directly with the commissioners court.” The statement alleges the court’s difficulty in distinguishing between Duty’s legal advice and her policy or political positions, unnamed instances of violations of attorney-client privilege, and Duty’s lawsuit against the court that put the county attorney “in an adversary position to the commissioners court.”

On November 20, the Statesman reported that Bradley said, Duty “has speculated that there is some grand conspiracy, and she has suggested that favoritism is taking place. But she has not a shred of evidence and is sounding more and more desperate.

“I think the public should be concerned about such an approach because it appears to promote a political goal over the fair administration of justice,” Bradley told the Statesman.

Duty said Bradley’s criticism is a smokescreen to hide the fact that he didn’t do a proper investigation of the payments made to attorney Mike Davis. That’s why she is arranging for an independent investigation.

“Once it’s out of my hands it will not be my case anymore. At least an investigation can be done, hopefully with integrity and without outside influence,” Duty said. “I’d like to think that justice will prevail.”

Citizens also want investigation

Duty has gotten citizen support for pushing the investigation.

On November 19, the Williamson County Public Policy Coalition, sent a letter to Duty, stating, in part, “The undersigned residents and taxpayers of Williamson County hereby file this complaint in connection with recently published events in which it appears that Round Rock attorney Mike Davis may have billed the county and been paid by the county for legal services rendered to Mr. Don Higginbotham without such transaction having been authorized by the county. We hereby request that you, in your official capacity as county attorney, conduct a criminal investigation of the individuals and circumstances involved in these events.”

The letter was signed by Jeff Maurice of Hutto, a Democrat who was defeated in his bid to unseat Republican incumbent Precinct 4 County Commissioner Ron Morrison.

“It just doesn’t smell right,” Maurice told The Austin Bulldog. Although Maurice is aware that the county attorney is already looking into this matter, he said, “I felt a duty to urge her to move forward with it.”

Also listed in the letter in support of an investigation are Jane Van Praag of Bartlett; former Georgetown Mayor Mary Ellen Kersch; Jose Orta of Taylor, who is affiliated with the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens; Jerry Tidwell, a Georgetown Republican who owns the Williamson County Recycle Center; and Hutto residents Lou Ward, Cheryl Rae, and Virginia Bickley.

Mary Ellen Kersch told The Austin Bulldog she wants Duty to pick up the investigation because, “I don’t trust any investigation Bradley claims to have made regarding his political allies.”

Jerry Tidwell said, “I’m a card-carrying Republican. I worked on John Gordon’s campaign (for state representative) in the last election.” But Tidwell is not satisfied by Bradley’s insistence there’s nothing to prosecute. “I certainly don’t buy this was a miscommunication or misunderstanding between Gattis and the commissioners court. It was probably underhandedly done to deceive the commissioners court.”

Key is independent investigation

Ultimately what happens hinges on getting a special prosecutor and an independent investigation.

“I need an outside prosecutor to remove any appearance of political motivation or personal vendetta,” Duty told The Austin Bulldog.

Duty said she has not yet sworn in a special prosecutor but she has a verbal commitment from one who is currently involved in a capital murder trial in another county.

“I am not asking the investigator to move forward until the special prosecutor is ready to take control of the case,” she said in a November 30 e-mail. “I am not releasing any information on which investigative agency I am asking to conduct the investigation, as I do not want any more ‘meddling’ on Mr. Bradley’s part.”

This Investigative 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.