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Bell County: Will bad behavior or good government prevail?

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Bell County’s political climate could see less calm times ahead as three high profile cases continue casting questions on the fronts of police use of force, open government and responsible stewardship of taxpayer funds.

Though the county’s aggressive prosecution of U.S. Army Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham for an interfering with the duties of a peace officer Class B misdemeanor charge ended in a conviction, the narrowly-crafted jury charge left a second jury with little choice but to convict. In a “good enough for government work” sense, Bell County Attorney office prosecutors can count this as a win, but closer inspection reveals the “victory” as more a matter of process domination rather than justice or even a sensible pursuit and application of the law.

Grisham’s prosecution exposed an important tenet under which the Temple Police Department appears to operate. During his court appearance, Officer Steve Ermis, Grisham’s arresting officer, provided an interesting view of resisting arrest and use of force concepts. Within the Ermis Doctrine, the 27-year police force veteran testified that a suspect never has the opportunity to resist arrest, that it’s appropriate to use the force necessary to affect an arrest. When asked if a defendant has the right to resist the use of unreasonable force, Ermis replied no, that the court system is “where things are to be hashed out.”

And more court is likely ahead with this case. Grisham has expressed intentions to appeal his Bell County court conviction. City of Temple taxpayers should also expect civil litigation.

The city of Temple has supported Ermis’ actions since Grisham’s March arrest. The county’s vigorous pursuit of Grisham’s case signals additional support of the doctrine. Such support speaks to local government expectations of a citizenry not just complying with the government it funds, but something more akin to unquestioning submission.

Grisham’s unwillingness to comply with police actions he deemed outside legal authority created the situation leading to his arrest. Though different circumstances, another questionable police force case in which officers appear to have broken the collar bone of 15-year-old Lorenzo Martinez further suggests Ermis Doctrine expectations.

Martinez’s account of his May 18 police encounter sounds as that of a young person, a minor, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reportedly observing what he said looked like an arrest taking place in the front part of the Temple Walmart store caused Martinez to attract the attention of Officer Daniel Amaya. Martinez attempting to leave the store after Amaya allegedly told him not to reportedly prompted Amaya to grab the teenager’s arms to cuff him. Upon asking a reason for his arrest, Martinez maintains “Amaya slammed him to the ground, an officer got on his back and another officer grabbed him around his throat.”

Martinez claims officers ignored his complaints of injury and accused him of being involved in a theft. Martinez admits spitting on the ground upon the officer’s accusation and doing it again after the officer ordered him to clean it up before the officer then “slammed him down on his back – hurting his arm again – and then moved him back and forth on the ground like a rag to use his shirt to clean it up.”

On Oct. 16, a Bell County grand jury declined taking action against the officers. Martinez’s attorney, Kurt Glass, told the Temple Daily Telegram the decision’s wording indicated the matter was only presented as a misdemeanor case. Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza did not comment on the decision.

The grand jury no bill appeared as one more demonstration of local officials exercising protectionist interventionism on behalf of other governmental agency peers.

On the same day as Grisham’s conviction, Martinez’s mother Elsa received a letter from Temple Police Chief Gary Smith advising that the investigation of her May 21 complaint against the department was complete and that “violations of the rules and regulations of the Temple Police Department were found to have occurred.”

Smith further stated how because of the violations, disciplinary action was taken, specifically that the two officers involved – Amaya and Jeremy Case Bales – have been indefinitely suspended from the department. An indefinite suspension, Smith wrote, “is the civil service equivalent to a termination. It is the strongest administrative action that I can take.” The matter, however, is “not fully concluded” as the officers have appealed their suspensions.

Temple attorney David Fernandez Jr. has notified the Temple Police Department and city of Temple of his plans to file a civil lawsuit in connection with Martinez’s injuries.

With no information about the grand jury review, Fernandez recently told the Telegram:

“I don’t know if the grand jurors spent 10 minutes on Lorenzo’s case or all day. … I do wonder what the grand jurors think about the city of Temple Police Chief’s firing of the two offending police officers and the written apology to Lorenzo and his mother,” Fernandez said Tuesday.

While he’s still gathering evidence, the attorney said neither Temple police, the Texas Rangers nor the Bell County District Attorney’s office have provided any case information.

“To date, we do not have the audio/video recordings, Amaya’s or Bales’ offense reports, statements made by witnesses, the internal affairs investigation final report and the Temple Police investigation report. In other words, we don’t have the information to make an informed, intelligent decision on how to proceed in this case,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez also challenged the city of Temple and the district attorney to make the investigation’s results public, saying that Lorenzo and Bell County residents should have access to the entire story about what happened on May 18.

“Release the video tape of Lorenzo’s arrest. Release the entire videotape. The videotape does not lie.”

As noted in prior articles, government is good at protecting itself. The Grisham case proved that fully while the Martinez case is a split decision with questionable timing. These cases and the policy issues they raise aren’t closed – and neither is the tab for which taxpayers are responsible.

And with these cases moving forward, the investigation and potential prosecution of Temple Mayor Pro Tem Judy Morales for 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 will become an even more important indicator as to the interests these local governments truly serve.

Morales stepped down from her position as director of the Temple HELP (Health, Education, Leadership, Progress) Center, an outreach department of Bell County that helps connect area residents with a wide range of community-based, often taxpayer-funded services, after a discovery that the Temple City Charter precludes individuals with tax-funded income from holding office.

The Telegram is additionally citing 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.

In statements to Bell County, Paul described how Morales had her working on campaign fliers, soliciting campaign contributions, creating voter spreadsheets and organizing other tasks including early voting registrations and voter transportation.

“All was done at the Temple HELP Center office,” Paul said. “County computers, printers and office materials were all accessible via approval from Judy Morales.”

Paul explained in her letter that she came forward to human resources because she “felt and continue to feel that what Judy was asking me to do … (was) morally and ethically wrong and I wanted no part in it.”

In the transcript, Morales said she learned the Telegram had requested her emails through a courtesy call by Bell County Judge Jon Burrows.

“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.”

Multiple Class A misdemeanor charges are possible, although some counts of tampering with governmental records move into felony territory. As the Grisham case set precedent for the Bell County Attorney’s office aggressive prosecution of misdemeanor cases, the treatment of this case merits watching.

While law enforcement investigates the allegations, the city of Temple also has issues pending. Prior to the latest claims, Morales was reportedly working with the city and county to create a consulting position that would sidestep the city charter issue, allowing her to continue an income stream from the HELP Center and to retain her city council position. Per Burrows, that discussion is now on hold and “probably unlikely.”

The legitimacy of Morales’ election and council representation while a HELP Center employee is not being addressed, but Morales can be removed from the the Temple City Council if the remaining four members bring forward a “good cause” vote.

If Morales is found to have diverted taxpayer-funded resources as alleged before then seeking to cover her actions, it will speak to a taxpayer betrayal both with regard to responsible use of tax dollars and respectful observance of open, honest government.

At what point might taxpayers demand good government prevail over bad behavior?

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