Attention on Temple Mayor Pro Tem Judy Morales is rightfully focusing on potential violations of Bell County employee policy and perhaps state election laws after allegedly using county resources in the course of her 2011 Temple City Council campaign, but might other issues be ahead? Specifically, destruction of public records charges and a substantive review of her eligibility to have ever run in 2011?
With a Morales sought to delete emails, files headline, the Temple Daily Telegram reported the following on Dec. 1:
BELTON — Temple mayor pro tem Judy Morales reportedly deleted emails and documents linking her to improper, and potentially illegal, campaign activities on HELP Center computers after an open records request was filed for access to her public email account, according to a complaint filed with Bell County.
A seven-page statement filed by HELP Center employee Mari Paul, who voluntarily assisted Morales in her 2011 campaign for Temple City Council, included a transcript of a recorded phone conversation in which Morales reportedly said she “went ahead and deleted all this stuff. Whether it worked or not, I don’t know and I don’t care.”
Morales then reportedly told Paul to scan her own HELP Center computer for “any fliers, any emails, any letter, you know, and the documents, pertaining to the campaign. (T)he campaign from Jan. 1, 2011, to May 31st 2011.”
The Telegram had filed a request with Bell County for access to Morales’ emails from November 2010 to May 31, 2011, the day before.
“If we can just look at that period of time — it’s the only time we’re looking for,” Morales said in the phone call transcript.
“And if you want me to do it, just give me your password and I can go do it … but we probably need to do it tomorrow or Monday,” when the HELP Center was to be closed for Veterans Day.
Morales became aware of the public information request through a “courtesy call” made by Bell County Judge Jon Burrows.
The potential of Class A misdemeanor charges for violations of the Texas Election Code is not in dispute. Allegations that Morales directed the use of a county employee’s time and county resources toward her 2011 city council campaign are being investigated by Bell County law enforcement.
The issue of destroying public documents has yet to be addressed. If emails and files were destroyed as per Morales’ instruction, these likely were considered public information or government records and some counts of tampering with governmental records move into felony territory.
Morales’ eligibility to run for city council is another interesting issue.
Her bio on the city of Temple website currently reads:
Judy has worked as the Director of Social Services for the Temple H.E.L.P. center administrating, planning and implementing community based outreach services and programs since 1972.
Bell County operates two HELP (Health, Education, Leadership, Progress) Centers – an outreach department of Bell County that assists area residents in connecting with a wide range of community-based, often but not exclusively taxpayer-funded services. One is in Temple, another in Killeen. The Temple center has reportedly been under Bell County for more than 20 years.
While many government documents feature complicated legalese, the Temple city charter is plainly written. Article 4 addresses municipal governance with Section 4.9 stating this regarding conflict of interest (bolding added):
No Council member shall, during his term of office, hold any other public office or employment, compensation for which is paid out of public funds. No Councilmember, appointed officer, or employee of the City shall benefit unduly by reason of his holding public office. For the purposes of this section, a person “unduly benefits” by reason of his holding public office, if he, a person related to him in the first degree, or a business entity in which he or a first degree relative has a ten percent interest or from which he or a first degree relative receive ten percent of their income, will receive a special economic benefit that is distinguishable from the effect on the general public. No Councilmember, appointed officer, or employee of the City having a direct or indirect interest in any proposed or existing contract, purchase, work, sale, or service to or by the City shall vote or render a decision, or use his position, authority or influence in a manner that would result in his financial betterment to a greater degree than the general benefit to the public. Any knowing or wilful violation of this section shall constitute malfeasance in office, and any elected or appointed official, or any employee of the City, guilty thereof shall thereby forfeit his office or position. Any violation of this section, with the knowledge, expressed or implied, of the person or corporation contracting with the City shall render the contract involved voidable by the City Council. The restrictions contained in this section shall be cumulative of those required and provided by State law.
No complicated language. Not even a particularly long passage. Yet no one claims to have known it was there.
In November, the Telegram reported:
Morales checked with City Attorney Jonathan Graham and Bell County Judge Jon Burrows before running for the Council seat about the possibility of a conflict of interest.
The city does not verify whether a candidate is eligible to run in a City Council election, Graham said.
After learning of the clause in September, Morales retired as a Bell County employee, stepping down as social services director of the Bell County HELP Center in Temple. The county has arranged for Morales to serve as a consultant, however, with compensation comparable to her former salary.
Under the yet-to-be signed contract, Morales will be paid $40 an hour for working no more than 116 hours per month, which if fully realized, would equal $55,680 annually. At the time of her retirement on Oct. 1, her salary was $64,725, Burrows said.
She will be eligible to begin the contract in December, Burrows said.
Graham said the city was unaware of the clause until City Manager David Blackburn raised the question following a “continuing education” workshop with the Council in which the clause appeared in his PowerPoint.
Graham said that while he was researching the question of Morales’ eligibility, she opted to resign her county position, resolving the potential conflict of interest.
“She felt like she wanted to sort of remove that from being an issue,” he said.
While a consulting contract certainly would fulfill a “letter of the law” interpretation of the clause, spirit of the law questions – specifically the potential for ethical conflicts – arguably remain.
Since the criminal allegations have surfaced, however, Burrows said creation of the consulting position that would sidestep the city charter issue and allow Morales to continue an income stream from the HELP Center while retaining her city council position is now on hold and “probably unlikely.”
Morales is currently taking a temporary leave of absence from the council.
The Telegram reported that seven community members approached the city council during the Nov. 21 meeting to voice their support for Morales remaining in office. While Morales has supporters viewing her as a dedicated public servant and community volunteer, others have differing views.
The phone conversation transcript provided to Bell County by Paul also included:
“He wanted me to be aware they called and asked for a public information request,” Morales said in the transcript of the tape, “which means they can go in our emails and … search, you know. But, but you know, I don’t want them to search everything because they’re going to know about all this other stuff, from LULAC and everything else.”
Later in the tape transcript she said, “I just figure, OK, we’ll just delete, delete, delete … and then if I get in trouble, I’m in trouble, you know … but I’m gonna kind of plead the Fifth.”
League of United Latin American Citizens scholarship committee member Frances Fischer told the Telegram she believes Morales should not be allowed to serve on the Council.
“I don’t think she needs to take a temporary leave of absence, I think she needs to resign, or they need to remove her,” Fischer said. “Since she was ineligible to run (in 2011) she should be removed. And that’s notwithstanding all the county materials she used.”
Fischer has been a member of LULAC for 10 years, and said she questioned some of the decisions Morales made as chairperson of the organization’s scholarship committee.
“As chairperson, she could oversee the committee, but could not change the guidelines of how the scholarships were handed out,” Fischer said. “She did it, and didn’t care.”
A letter to the editor went further into similar detail (see sidebar).
Whether it be the Grisham arrest and prosecution, the Martinez assault or now these allegations against Morales, the Temple City Council remains in its chronic state of silence. Akin to more sometimes being less, silence can also sometimes speak volumes.
Rule of law concerns don’t seem to abound. The “pending investigation” stance is handy, it’s helpful, but beware if it finally wears thin.
Fortunately for some, city of Temple as well as many Bell County taxpayers (except for folks in Killeen perturbed enough to recall their city council) are a patient bunch. An official’s popularity often trumps expectations of propriety or policy prowess.
In all fairness, these same situations are occurring in counties across Texas and across the nation. Public corruption and blatant disregard for a lawful society are now at epidemic proportions. It takes citizens telling elected officials “enough.”
Pockets of hope do exist. Will Bell County become such an example? Time will tell.