Documents reveal grand jury statement, last-minute budget move by suspended county judge

Published: Jul. 14, 2016 at 9:04 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 14, 2016 at 11:28 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

TYLER, TX (KLTV) - Documents obtained by KLTV 7 Investigates reveal a statement from now-suspended County Judge Joel Baker that he may have read during his grand jury hearing.

The documents obtained via the Texas Public Information Act are from Baker's e-mails in his final days in office before being suspended following his indictment on three counts of violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

GRAND JURY STATEMENT

One document titled 'Grand Jury Statement 06.16.16' from the Judge's Smith County e-mail to his personal e-mail reveal a statement he may have read to the grand jury before being indicted.

The revealing of such info is extraordinarily rare, with proceedings of a grand jury in Texas kept secret by law.

In the statement it says, "My political enemies are using this function, they are attempting to use you, to retaliate against me. This is evident in many ways, the most glaring being I am the only one who the State plans to seek an indictment on, even though we the court acted together as a body."

Full document titled 'Grand Jury Statement'

The document also called the investigation by the Texas Attorney General's Office 'politically charged.' The author said the allegation that the court would knowingly violate the Texas Open Meetings Act is false but does not provide proof of why it is false.

The statement said the court relied on the legal advice given by two attorneys in the civil division of the Smith County District Attorney's Office.

"It is their responsibility to review the court agendas to ensure the proper verbiage is included in the posting of the agendas."

Bill Aleshire is an attorney specializing in open government and was the county judge in Travis County for twelve years. He said the situation in Smith County, with just the judge being indicted, is interesting.

"In order for there even to be a meeting, there had to be a quorum of the commissioners court present," Aleshire said via Skype. "So there's other people who participated in that alleged illegal closed meeting who have not been indicted."

KEY CARD USAGE

After testifying before the grand jury on June 16, Baker would spend a lot of time at the county courthouse annex building, according to key card logs reviewed by KLTV 7 Investigates.

Saturday after Baker turned himself into the Smith County Jail, he returned to the annex building, with his key card being used until nearly 10 p.m.

Sunday night, Baker was at the annex building until 12:13a.m. Monday. We asked for video of those late nights at the annex offices but were told the county overwrites video every week and a half and the video for those dates was not available.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Terry Phillips said the judge was supervised as he removed items from the annex building on the day he was suspended.

"I was not here, I know Commissioner Warr was and to my understanding everything was inventoried and he didn't take anything but what belonged to him," Phillips said.

When asked if there is any way of knowing what, if anything, may have been taken from the annex before the suspension, Phillips was unsure.

"Not that I know of. I have no -- any indication. I've not reviewed the inventory or anything," Phillips said.

However we have reviewed that inventory. The county said in an e-mail before the judge turned himself into the jail, the county court administrator confirms with the purchasing department that the following property belongs to the county:

  1. Cherry finish executive desk
  2. Cherry finish executive credenza with matching hutch with glass doors
  3. 2 - oak finish side chairs with arms (old library chairs)
  4. Cherry finish round conference table
  5. Small oak finish square table with bottom shelf
  6. 2-Dell laptop computers and 1- view-sonic desktop monitor

The court administrator confirms that "all other items located in the county judge's office are identified as personal property of Judge Joel Baker."

LAST-MINUTE BUDGET MOVE

The county judge did make one requested budget move before he was suspended from office.

"That change was submitted by Judge Baker prior to his suspension," County Auditor Ann Wilson informs the commissioners court at a budget workshop after Baker's suspension.

Baker e-mailed Wilson about the change the day he would end up turning himself into the Smith County Jail.

"What was the basis of this request?" Commissioner Cary Nix asks.

"I think she just said Judge Baker made that call. I didn't know that until you just saw it," County Administrator Leonardo Brown responded.

The request from Baker to Wilson was made in an e-mail that started "I don't know what my status will be next week." He then proceeds to tell Wilson to amend the proposed budget to allow for an attorney that would be just for the county administration and would make a salary from $90,000-$115,000.

The attorney for the commissioners court is currently handled by the civil division of the Smith County District Attorney's Office, a division that handles legal matters for all county departments and elected officials. However, this proposed position would only be for the county administration.

Also in the request, Baker told Wilson to remove the request from the District Attorney's Office for a new employee in 2017. That employee for the district attorney's office would have been a new attorney, working on the growing number of appeals the county has been seeing. The salary for that position was requested at $55,000, half of the salary of Baker's proposed position.

The Smith County District Attorney's Office said they were unaware of the budget request, saying the judge was in favor of their new position. The office said Baker was within his rights to make the move, but they are left wondering what motivated the change.

The commissioners took no action on the budget item.

On Tuesday, July 19, commissioners will likely vote on an acting county judge to fill the role of Baker until there is a resolution of his legal matters. If a decision is made on Tuesday, the acting judge could be sworn in on Thursday.

Copyright 2016 KLTV. All rights reserved.

RELATED STORIES: