A Nov. 9, 2013, phone call by Temple Mayor Pro Tem Judy Morales to then-Bell County employee Mari Paul, a complaint filed just days later with the Bell County Human Resources Department in response to that call and what seems an emerging pattern of troubling behavior create new questions regarding misconduct allegations reportedly investigated by Bell County Sheriff Eddy Lange’s office and now awaiting a prosecutorial determination from County Attorney Jim Nichols.
Per the city of Temple web site, Morales has worked since 1972 as Director of Social Services for 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 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.
Morales was elected to the Temple City Council in May 2011. Ironically, in September 2013, she and other city officials reportedly learned of her ineligibility to run for that office based on a clause in the Temple City Charter, a document noted by the Temple Daily Telegram as being 91-years-old.
Section 4.9 of the charter is entitled “Conflict of Interest” and states:
No Councilmember 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.
City of Temple elected officials and staff claim to have been unaware of the clause until its surfacing at a fall “continuing education” workshop. On Nov. 6, 2013, the Telegram reported Morales’ Oct. 1 retirement from her Bell County employment.
At that time it was additionally confirmed by Bell County Judge Jon Burrows that Morales would serve as a consultant for the HELP Center receiving 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.
The city and county signaled this arrangement as an acceptable resolution to the conflict of interest. Temple City Attorney Jonathan Graham told the Telegram, “Morales does not appear to be in jeopardy of losing her seat despite being ineligible to run in 2011. A review process would begin, however, if someone files a complaint with the city secretary’s office.”
Morales’ eligibility for office wasn’t the only source of scrutiny during this time frame as the Temple Daily Telegram had also filed a Public Information Act (PIA) request seeking to learn if Morales violated county employee policies and/or state election laws by utilizing county employees and resources during her 2011 city council campaign.
Based on the complaint subsequently filed by Paul, a three-year employee of Morales:
a) Judy Morales told me to delete information from my County computer that contained all brochures, voter registration etc… from her 2011 run for City Council after a request for public records was made.
b) Judy Morales demanded access to my county computer password so that she could personally delete all files pertaining to her 2011 election. Judy
c) Judy Morales called the office manager Monday 11th (Veterans Day and County Holiday) asking if office manager had access to my password. When Office Manager said “no”. Judy made a statement that as Director she should have access to all THC employees.
In her complaint, Paul revealed how Morales contacted her the evening of Nov. 7, reporting that night’s “chatter” around the city council meeting of the Telegram “looking into ‘misappropriation of funds’ during her 2011 election.” Morales allegedly instructed Paul with regard to the reporter to “take a message” and further directed “do not answer any of his questions.”
Paul described how the next day Morales used her cell phone to call Paul asking for “my help in explaining to her how to transfer documents from her desktop to an external hard-drive,” a process Paul believed was happening as the two remained on the line.
The complaint noted:
She then asked me to “delete any files we weren’t currently working on” any “old” documents and brochures. She did not tell me what documents but I knew they were Campaign related because of the conversation. (I did not delete). When the conversation was over I went into her back office and realized she had taken her county laptop with her to the church retreat.
Later that day Paul additionally detailed fielding a call from Telegram reporter Geoff West and per Morales’ instructions, avoided providing any comment. All of the HELP Center staff, per Paul, were aware of the situation. She further maintains “I was not going to delete any information from my county computer or any other device.”
That Saturday, Nov. 9, a call identified as from Morales was described as follows. Note the phone number has been redacted due to privacy concerns.
At I received a phone call from phone number 254-xxx-xxxx. When I answered the phone it was Judy She stated she was calling me from an unknown number because her phone calls were public record. The conversation began with her telling me she heard a voice message left on her cell phone from the TDT newspaper asking her to comment on her Election 2011.
in the beginning of her conversation (not recorded) she was telling me directly and bluntly to erase any election documents. Below are the transcripts heard partially by Steve Cook and Laura Hardcastle and in its entirety by Judge Burrows and Richard Cortse.
A significant portion of that conversation was initially captured on video but is presented here in audio form again to avoid phone number displays.
The call includes Morales claiming to have learned of the PIA request from “the judge,” presumably referring to Burrows.
She tells Paul “Friday evening the judge called me. He said that this guy—he wanted me to be aware they called and asked for a public information request, which means they can go in our emails and..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. Can you imagine the heyday they’re going to have on the news if these…they get low and dirty.”
At the end of her complaint, Paul noted Morales’ instruction that “I need to plead the fifth” and concluded with these statements:
I Matilda “Mari” Tames-Paul to admit to assisting as requested in Judy Morales’ 2011 City council campaign. Per Judy I was to update fliers, copy fliers, seek out contributors for campaign, create voter spreadsheets, organize and plan early voter registrations and “rides to the polls” and any other materials needed for Judy.
I was acting on the sole request and benefit of Judy Morales. The bulk of my time doing the above was at the Bell County HELP Center. County computers, printers and office materials were all accessible via approval from Judy Morales.
I can provide several witnesses to attest to the above. At no time did I nor Judy feel that it interfered with my duties as Triage at the time. Admittedly it did overwhelm my already busy and hectic duties at the Help Center as it continued until recently.
On Monday, the county-observed Veterans Day holiday, Morales again called Paul leaving this message.
Paul verbally filed her complaint upon returning to work Tuesday and then followed up, per a request from Human Resources Director Steve Cook, with a written version (see full complaint below) and materials supporting the allegations made.
Per Paul, Morales was escorted from the Bell County premises on that Tuesday, however, her county association including direction of the Help Center operation and personnel continued.
Bell County as well as the city of Temple including Mayor Danny Dunn and City Manager David Blackburn have largely remained silent. With suggestions that action is unlikely to be taken, Paul on Jan. 27, 2014, resigned from her Bell County position.
Since the Telegram’s initial reporting on the controversies surrounding Morales, the councilwoman’s supporters and critics have weighed in.
The Telegram’s Letters to the Editor section has featured allegations of other wrongdoing.
The truth finally was told about Judy Morales Steinheimer in the Telegram on Dec. 1.
The taped transcript quoted Morales: “I don’t want them to search everything because they’re going to know about all this other stuff, from LULAC and everything else.”
I am the president of Central Texas LULAC Council No. 4746. The LULAC she referred to has filed three IRS nonprofit complaints with the state attorney general, Bell County Attorney and Temple Police.
The transcript said, “delete … and then if I get in trouble … I’m just gonna kind of plead the Fifth.” She has done this with LULAC since 2009.
LULAC met at the HELP Center for about two years at Morales’ invitation. She copied meeting minutes on the center copier, offered us center water bottles and took three toys belonging to HELP Center Christmas gifts to kids for LULAC officers (treasurer, district director and herself) to save time for a LULAC fundraiser. People asked if it was OK to meet at the HELP Center or take the toys. “Yes, it’s OK,” she would insist.
Deleting files reminds me of Watergate. Has our city government become this way because of our mayor pro tem?
As a Temple resident, I request she be removed for being ineligible to run in the first place. Secondly, pay back all county funds she used without authorization.
Past praises may have been correct. But look at what Judy is doing and saying now. History tells of people who start out good but end up bad because they lose track of their goals and purpose. “Power corrupts.” It is sad. However, right is right. Temple must correct this wrongdoing.
It also has provided a forum for her supporters:
I was very upset over an extremely critical Dec. 29 letter to the editor about Judy Morales.
The information given by Ms. Frances Fischer was incorrect and written from a personal vendetta point of view. Judy did not resign, she retired after 41 years of outstanding service to the county and our community.
In regards to the comment about her lack of qualifications for City Council, there is not a person in this community who is more qualified to sit on the City Council. Before running, she checked with city and county officials. If they didn’t know about the city charter regulations (written in 1922), how was she expected to know?
Ms. Fischer, I would like to remind you that Judy was elected by 93 percent of the vote. Vindictive in Merriam-Webster online is defined as “vengeful, who tries to cause hurt or anguish.”
Why would anyone want to cause hurt to someone who has done so much for our community and our citizens unless it is because of their own rage and hatred? Mathew 7:3 tells us “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Also, the Bible warns us that unkind judgment of others will be judicially returned upon ourselves.
It is my prayer that in this New Year, this self-righteous critical judgment by others against Judy will stop and that we will all remember God’s second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Let’s encourage people instead of trying to destroy them.
I learned after my resignation from the Help Center that Judy Morales’ constituents inundated local offices with letters attempting to discredit my official statement.
Many state I was a joyful volunteer. I was neither a volunteer nor victim. I was a Bell County employee acting on orders from director Judy Morales.
For those who believe I should have behaved otherwise is ridiculous. What were my other options? My work was to do exactly as Judy instructed including her 2011 City Council campaign.
Many times I was made available for projects for the same organizations that now criticize me. They have made it about me and not about Judy.
I would like everyone to understand the position I was placed in by Judy. You’ve ultimately left me no other choice but to come forward.
Why are we skirting the real issues? Demand to know why Judy deleted files and told me to “delete files” after she was made aware of the open records request. Why is she holding a Council seat if she was ineligible to run in 2011? Will she be allowed to manipulate the system, then allowed to return for business as usual?
I’ll ultimately never know how those letters affected or swayed my employment or affect future employment prospects.
To rectify this problem, I’ll make available free of charge my 7-page statement to include transcripts of the video and the actual video itself, in the hopes the public (and City Council) will be allowed to make an educated decision based on facts, not fiction.
I’m doing this to avoid future attempts to discredit me from those not fully informed.
I sincerely hope that all I’ve been through was not in vain.
It’s now reported that the sheriff’s department investigation is complete leaving the decision to prosecute in the hands of Nichols.
Morales remains on a temporary leave of absence from her council duties. Whether she files for re-election in May remains to be seen. Meanwhile, her consulting opportunity with Bell County is, per Burrows, probably unlikely.
And the information disclosed to date certainly creates questions and issues that include (but are not limited to):
- How is an official casting city council votes for more than two years while “serving” in a position to which she was unlawfully elected not an issue for city of Temple officials? Does that not reflect on a governmental entity’s respect for the rule of law?
- How far might any misappropriation of resources go? Can taxpayers feel confident such issues are being investigated? Questions regarding employee labor resources, materials and facilities certainly abound. But also, were resources – perhaps grants or other funds received from state, federal or private sources – also misused? And if so, wouldn’t restitution be in order?
- If such actions were discovered, is the county willing to develop and enforce a plan for restitution? If one particular official is found to be a poor steward of financial resources, does that absolve an entire county (or any other taxpayer-funded organization) from its fiscal responsibility?
- The Bell County Employee Handbook addresses issues ranging from involvement in political campaigns to use of county equipment and personnel for such purposes to reporting of employee time worked to use of county computers, network and internet. Are the policies and procedures outlined in such a document substantively enforced or are they selectively used based on the influence of the potentially offending employee?
- Might visible, selective enforcement of policies place taxpayers at greater risk for having to finance litigation alleging discriminatory practices?
- What about potential Texas Election Code violations?
- What about attempted or actual destruction of public records? That’s not a “not a big deal.” Transparency with regard to public institutions is a critical part of our democratic process, it’s the basis for a free and open government. Some counts of tampering with governmental records move into felony territory. Bell County has unabashedly prosecuted far lesser offenses while employing taxpayer-funded, legal gamesmanship with other more troubling cases.
One last point and certainly not the least important. What kind of people or organization puts their employees (or at least seemingly) in a position of violating policies, misrepresenting actions, even potentially breaking laws?
And regardless the person, if such an elected official or government employee is found to have done such things – whether intentionally or not – should they be in a position of responsibility or stewardship of public resources?
In her recent public letter, Paul stated “I’ll make available free of charge my 7-page statement to include transcripts of the video and the actual video itself, in the hopes the public (and City Council) will be allowed to make an educated decision based on facts, not fiction.”
This is that information. Regarding her speaking out, Paul says the county has had its opportunity and that its failure to fully disclose all the facts surrounding public wrongdoing deters others from coming forward.
It’s not about seeking retribution, Paul insists, it’s about looking to shed light.
And “light” with regard to their government is something the public should expect and receive.