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Justice of the Peace Gary Ritchie fired his court manager after an audit. Courtesy of garyritchiejp.org Inset: Shelly Ables.

A Tarrant County grand jury recently indicted a longtime court manager on suspicion of theft, misapplication of fiduciary property, and several counts of tampering with government records.

Few county employees have been indicted for financial crimes over the years, county spokesperson Marc Flake said. He can recall two incidents in the past 20 years.

“Stealing from taxpayers is a big deal,” he said. “It rarely happens.”

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One incident involved a county employee who was fired in 2010 for having pornography on his computer and was later discovered to have submitted bogus receipts for about $2,800 in reimbursement. The most memorable involved a former county tax officer and a local businesswoman who were involved in a scheme to steal fee money intended for county coffers. They were accused of pocketing about $700,000. Both were indicted in 2005 and convicted to prison sentences. That crime prompted then-tax assessor and collector Betsy Price, now mayor, to reorganize her office to prevent similar types of theft.

Shelly Ables managed the court of Justice of the Peace Gary Ritchie in southwestern Fort Worth when a county audit in 2016 uncovered questionable handling of finances. Ritchie fired Ables in November, and the DA’s office has been investigating the case ever since.

A court date is set for Friday, Sept. 22, in criminal district court. The judge is expected to make sure Ables is represented by an attorney and then set a hearing date, said district attorney spokesperson Samantha Jordan.

“It generally takes about a year for us to get to trial,” she said.

Ables could not be reached for comment.

Theft by public servant between $20 and $100,000 is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Misapplication of fiduciary property between $20 and $100,000 is a third-degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. And tampering with government records is a state jail felony punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The county auditor was sent to Ritchie’s subcourthouse last fall by County Auditor Renee Tidwell to perform a random cash count. Ritchie refused to allow access to the court safe on two occasions, reports show (“Under Investigation,” July 12).

Ultimately, auditors discovered about $20,000 in missing deposits. Ables said she found some of the missing money in her garage, according to the audit report. Ritchie’s termination letter to Ables includes a list of alleged violations involving haphazard record keeping.

The grand jury did not indict Ritchie, although, technically, he could be required to reimburse any money determined to be missing under his watch, Tidwell said.

“Any of the monies that become missing in any of the fee offices or an elected official’s office, they are personally liable from a civil perspective,” she said.

The district attorney is not discussing specifics of the case, including the amount of money that might be missing, Jordan said.

Tidwell wouldn’t discuss specific dollar amounts either. She said some of the missing money was later returned.

“Ms. Ables found some of it in her garage, for example,” Tidwell said. “Some of it was returned. I don’t know exactly how that works in the criminal justice system. If you bring it back, does that mean you didn’t steal it?”

Prosecuting county employees accused of criminal activities is crucial, Tidwell said.

“Our work concluded that there was an issue with the books and records,” she said. “Ms. Ables was the chief clerk. For me, as the county auditor, when an employee like that is associated with incidents, if there isn’t any punishment, it sends the wrong message to the whole rest of the county. If you can take money and not have any consequences, that would make my job even harder and would make more people inclined to see what they could take for themselves. The court will have to try Ms. Ables to see if she is guilty.”

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