7 Investigates: Smith County seeks appellate review of order releasing closed session videos

7 Investigates: Smith County seeks appellate review of order releasing closed session videos

SMITH COUNTY, TX (KLTV) - Concerned about the precedent set by the release of video recorded during a closed session of the Smith County Commissioner's Court has prompted officials to seek legal review of the order.

"Let me emphasize that my suggested course of action has nothing to do with the content of the closed session discussions," Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said in a statement issued Tuesday.

Prosecutor's exhibits from the criminal investigation of former County Judge Joel Baker were recently released by the Texas Attorney General's office to Grassroots America We the People through a public information request filed in March by director JoAnn Fleming. Those documents and videos were posted Monday on the organization's website.

The release of the behind-the-scenes video has raised legal questions and eyebrows.

This past December, Baker pleaded no contest to a single Texas Open Meetings violation and paid a $200 fine. Violations involved wording on commissioners court agendas, including an instance on July 8, 2014 in which a presentation American Traffic Solutions, Inc representatives that was listed on the agenda to occur during the public portion of the meeting, was instead moved into executive session—unannounced and not in accordance with the posted agenda. This is one of three incidents mentioned in Baker's indictment.

Somewhat ironically, it is again the Texas Open Meetings Act that has the court concerned.

If an appellate court finds Carter's order is void, Moran said the county's "deliberate approach" now will "prevent any future accusation that the county somehow violated the open meetings statutes by disclosing the closed session videos upon reliance of a void order."

Overall, Moran said he is concerned with three points: the timing of the order signed by Judge Jack Carter several months after the conclusion of the criminal case and after the customary end to a Court's plenary power, that the order was issued without prior notice to the county, and that the order made findings with respect to three closed sessions when the Baker criminal judgment ultimately involved only one.

In short, the county's leadership just wants to be certain that no laws were violated.

"Because of the irregularities surrounding the timing and procedure used to obtain this Order and because the law is clear that improper disclosure of videos of closed sessions is a crime, prudence dictates that the County seek appellate review of the April 17, 2017 order to determine whether the order in, in fact, valid of void, and whether the County can reasonably rely on the order in making the closed session videotapes public," Moran said.

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