Is Bell County history repeating itself? A Letter of Intent delivered to Temple City Hall Monday informed officials of an effort to circulate recall petitions seeking to remove from office Temple Mayor Danny Dunn, Mayor Pro Tem Judy Morales and council members Tim Davis, Perry Cloud and Russell Schneider. Grounds cited include misconduct, malfeasance, cronyism, neglect, incompetence as well as noncompliance with the city charter, self-dealing and betrayal of public trust. This move comes three years after city of Killeen residents similarly responded to officials’ seeming indifference to taxpayer interests and transparency.
Are taxpayer interests being protected, respected?
Mari Paul, recall petition organizer, describes her motivation for this effort as one of concern that taxpayer interests are not being protected or respected. Paul says her tenure as a three-year Bell County employee working under the direction of Morales provided a close-up view of attitudes toward taxpayer resources and the way in which these resources were used.
Paul says the situation with Morales provides the backdrop for today’s announcement of the recall effort. While Morales supporters advocate that her community service contributions outweigh any legal or ethical transgressions, Paul sees it otherwise. She believes others do as well and hopes they will come forward.
Of herself and other government employees, she said, “So many of us understand that had that been me, things would have been different.”
“No one any longer seems to be looking out for taxpayers,” Paul added. “It has become so blatant, so in your face over the last four months. It’s time for a fresh start.”
This move comes after a September revelation that Morales was illegally serving on the council as a “Conflict of Interest” clause in Temple’s 91-year-old city charter rendered Morales ineligible for her 2011 election. The conflict was hastily “resolved” with a November announcement of Morales’ Oct. 1 retirement from her 40+ year Director of Social Services position at the 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.
Bell County Judge Jon Burrows soon thereafter announced plans for Morales to serve as a consultant for the HELP Center and receive compensation comparable to her former salary.
Morales’ eligibility for office wasn’t the only source of scrutiny during this time 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.
It was this PIA request that allegedly prompted Morales to enlist Paul’s assistance in copying and then destroying campaign-related files at that time on she and Paul’s county (i.e., taxpayer-funded) computers. Audio captured by Paul both on a Saturday, Nov. 9, phone call and a Monday, Nov. 11, the county-observed Veterans Day holiday, message suggests Morales’ concerns over campaign and other non-county information coming to light.
Nov. 9 clip:
Nov. 11 clip:
In the first clip, Morales 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.”
Morales’ characterization of request for information to which the public is entitled as “low and dirty” is interesting both from the standpoint of her being a government employee and an elected official.
With concerns including Morales’ “delete, delete, delete” comments and admitted intentions to “plead the Fifth,” Paul filed a complaint against Morales upon returning to work Tuesday, Nov. 12, with Bell County Human Resources Director Steve Cook, a complaint that included a written version and materials supporting the allegations made.
Per Paul, Morales was escorted from the Bell County premises on that day, however, her county association including direction of the Help Center operation and personnel continued.
The materials provided by Paul were reportedly turned over to Bell County Sheriff Eddy Lange for investigation, an investigation now reported as completed and awaiting any determination regarding prosecution from Bell County Attorney Jim Nichols’ office.
Based on what’s known, Morales appears to have at the least violated Bell County employee policies as well as public trust by using county resources in manners outside their intended purpose. Destruction of public records is a crime that, depending on the specific allegations, can be charged as a misdemeanor or felony.
While Texas Ethics Commission violations could also be at issue, the campaign activities in question would largely have occurred January through May 2011 meaning that another 90 days will leave the commission as having no jurisdiction “if the allegation is based on facts that occurred more than three years before the date the complaint is filed or the date the commission would vote to initiate a preliminary review of a matter.”
Is silence acceptance?
Paul ultimately left her county employment in early 2014. Regarding now speaking out and taking action, Paul says she hopes to set an example as failures by (or resistance of) government to fully disclose all the facts surrounding public wrongdoing deter others from coming forward.
As with controversy related to the arrest and prosecution of C.J. Grisham and the alleged assault of then-15-year-old Lorenzo Martinez by Temple Police Department officers, Dunn and the other city council members have been publicly silent regarding Morales’ status and conduct.
Morales, meanwhile, has returned to active participation on the council and has filed for re-election.
Paul says locations for signing petitions will be posted on a Bell County Citizens for Integrity Facebook page.
Per Paul, upon delivering the Letter of Intent, City Secretary Lacy Borgeson reportedly declined to answer Paul’s request for clarification of charter language and instead directed her to consult legal counsel of her own. Paul says regardless, she will move forward with her effort.
“With no direction or better definition of the charter provisions, our bar for performance will just have to be higher,” she said. “I can’t believe everyone in Temple – like voters and taxpayers – are so accepting of this situation. This effort provides an opportunity for all voices to be heard.”
To learn more, see Stewardship of tax dollars, rule of law, ethics – do they matter?