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Morales plea deal – good deal for one, great for others to put behind?

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A plea agreement announced last week in Bell County allowed former Temple Mayor Pro Tem Judy Morales to plead no contest to a Class B misdemeanor charge of destruction, removal or alteration of public documents.

Per Bell County Attorney Jim Nichols, this charge was punishable by up to a $4,000 fine and/or confinement of up to three months. The plea arrangement, however, gives Morales deferred adjudication with nine months of probation and 24 hours of community service. The deal also includes a $750 fine along with $239 in court costs.

Successful completion of the deferred adjudication terms will result in no conviction record.

Morales’ March 11 arrest came after months of controversy focused on her eligibility for office as well as potential misuse of public funds and possible violations of county employee policies and/or state election laws by utilizing county employees and resources during her 2011 city council campaign.

Per her city of Temple website bio, Morales worked starting in 1972 as Director of Social Services for the Temple HELP (Health, Education, Leadership, Progress) Center, a Bell County outreach department which connects area residents with a wide range of community-based, often taxpayer-funded services and programs. As a county agency, Morales was a county employee working for an entity that serves city of Temple residents as well as receives funding from the city.

Questions over Morales’ office eligibility continued and on Nov. 6, 2013, the Temple Daily Telegram reported her Oct. 1 retirement from Bell County employment.

The situation escalated with a Temple Daily Telegram-filed open records request seeking Morales’ county emails during her 2011 campaign time frame. After being alerted to the request by County Judge Jon Burrows, Morales allegedly called Mari Paul, a Bell County employee supervised by Morales, seeking instruction on copying and then deleting computer files. She also requested Paul take similar action or else provide Morales, not at that point a county employee, Paul’s password information.

Paul, having developed concerns over Morales’ seemingly emerging misconduct, recorded that Nov. 9 conversation as well as another Nov. 11 voice mail and released them along with a formal complaint first to Bell County Human Resources Director Steve Cook and later to the media.

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That information also appeared to have served as the basis for Morales’ destruction of public documents charge.

Morales’ charge is Bell County’s second recent high profile Class B misdemeanor prosecution. It follows that of U.S. Master Sgt. C.J. Grisham whose March 2013 arrest by Temple Police Officer Steve Ermis for an initial resisting arrest charge was downgraded twice before Nichols’ office settled on an interfering with a peace officer while performing a duty charge, a Class B misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $2,000, confinement in jail for a term not to exceed 180 days or both fine and confinement.

A month after his arrest, Grisham, a well-known military blogger, captured a large portion of his arrest on cellphone video which was released shortly after the incident. It quickly went viral and prompted interest on the fronts of gun rights, police use of authority and government transparency/accountability issues.

Though the dashcam video was known to provide greater context for the exchange seen on Grisham’s video, Bell County and Temple police fought for months to not publicly disclose the dashcam video. The county only released it the day after Grisham’s conviction, but with that, the public could see how Ermis – in the early moments of the incident – pulled his gun and pointed it at the Grisham’s head. This appears to be the single act which prompted reactions that escalated the situation.

Misdemeanor trials are infrequent, but the county’s vigorous pursuit of Grisham’s case generated two trials. After a mid-October four-day trial ended as a mistrial due to a hung jury, a November retrial was scheduled.

In both trials the jury charge appears to have left little to no room for discretion, mitigating circumstances or self-defense. The first jury seemingly recognized and struggled with the narrow crafting of the charge while the second two-day trial delivered a jury that deliberated for about an hour before finding Grisham guilty. Despite no criminal history and his open carry of a long gun (which prompted the police attention) not being unlawful, Grisham was sentenced to a $2,000 fine although no jail time was assessed.

Nichols told the Telegram Morales’ lack of criminal history justified a “lenient sentence.”

The Telegram further reported:

“At her age, 72 years old, and she’d never been in trouble with the law before, deferred adjudication is pretty normal,” Nichols said. He said that while Morales intended to destroy the documents, her actions weren’t successful.

“In a sense, the documents weren’t destroyed,” Nichols said. “They were saved at another location.”

Nichols said a defendant entering a plea of no contest is very common.

“She decided not to contest the evidence,” Nichols said. “In this instance, the important part is that Judge Mischtian said that there was enough evidence to find her guilty.”

Morales resigned her city council position March 20 – hours ahead of a hearing scheduled to consider her removal from office. In a formal resignation notice she additionally noted her intention to submit a letter of declination as the District 2 officer-elect after the May 10 election. A special election will be called to fill that position.

And despite the plea deal as well as Morales’ resignation, questions continue. In a recent Telegram Letter to the Editor, Temple resident Frances Fisher wrote:

We do need a special prosecutor to investigate everything she has worked on or voted for since sitting on the City Council improperly. City business, county business, HELP Center, Citizens for Progress, East Temple Redevelopment … to include all employees working for Judy from the date she filed to run for Council to present day.

Judy stated, “There are major issues I’m concerned about the city that I don’t think you want me to bring forward today, and I won’t.” Well if she is so concerned, why has she not brought then forward? What is she saving them for?

Other taxpayers are likely asking the same question.

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