Examples of Tarrant County judges putting ethics above politics are not hard to find.
In 2008, a Republican judge ruled that Democratic Fort Worth City Councilmember Wendy Davis could run for state senator. Then-Sen. Kim Brimer, a Republican, filed a lawsuit that argued that her opponent should be removed from the ballot because Davis filed to run for the seat while still serving on city council, a move not allowed under the state constitution even though Tarrant County’s current leadership says otherwise — Constable Jody Johnson is currently running for county commissioner with the DA’s blessing (“ Skirting the State Constitution?” Sep. 15).
The deadline to remove a candidate had passed, the judge noted. Davis went on to defeat Brimer and to become a leading progressive voice for women’s rights in the years following.
In 2014, Judge R.H. Wallace of Tarrant County’s 96th District Court ruled that staffers at John Peter Smith Hospital could not keep a brain-dead pregnant woman on life support against her family’s wishes. Medical records showed that the nearly 6-month-old fetus had severe developmental defects that included fluid in the brain cavity. Lawyers representing the hospital were worried about running afoul of a new law, signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry, that banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Wallace said the law did not apply because the mother was dead.
“We recognize the tragic and painful situation the family faces,” said a spokesperson for Perry at the time. “We must also remember a [fetus’] life is at stake here and that state laws protecting that life must be followed.”
Wallace, a Republican, ruled against the wishes of conservative right-to-life groups that were calling for the brain-dead mother to be kept on life support in the interests of the fetus.
But that was then.
In recent years, nonpartisan rulings have become replaced with allegations of politically motivated rulings and prosecutions. One recent example: former Attorney General William Barr, who, through his actions, turned his federal department into the quasi-personal law firm of former president Donald Trump.
A federal prosecutor testified before the House Judiciary Committee in mid-2020 about Trump’s efforts to pressure the Justice Department into lightening the sentence of Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime friend and adviser who had been charged with obstruction, giving false statements, and witness tampering related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Closer to home in August, a Republican judge appeared to question the efficacy of facemasks when halting an order by Fort Worth superintendent Kent Scribner that all students wear facemasks.
And the unprecedented April indictment of two Carroll school board members who were politically targeted by wealthy Republican insiders has only further fueled public concern that the Tarrant County district attorney’s office is allowing petty politics to influence prosecutorial discretion (“ Buying Judicial Influence?” Sep. 1).
Tiffany Burks, one of two Democratic candidates currently running for Tarrant County district attorney, said the optics of the Carroll indictments “are certainly disturbing.”
Burks, who was the longtime chief prosecutor at the local DA office, will face Albert Roberts in the March 2022 Democratic primary, and the winner will go against DA Sharen Wilson, who is seeking reelection as a Republican, next November.
“I can’t speak to the intent of the participants in this case,” Burks said, referring to the assistant district attorneys who pursued the criminal charges. “The people in our community want to trust our public officials. The public loses trust when the legal system is used for political gain or to garner support from their base. Partisanship has no place in matters involving our criminal justice system.”
The April 1 indictments of the two Carroll school board members — Todd Carlton and Michelle Moore — for allegedly violating the Texas Open Meetings Act shook an already polarized Southlake community.
Following the 2018 and 2019 release of viral videos that showed dozens of Carroll high school students chanting the n-word, the Carroll school board’s seven members began drafting the Cultural Competence Action Plan (CCAP), which outlined a roadmap to address lingering race-related issues that put Southlake in the national spotlight. The indictment against Carlton and Moore alleges that both school board members discussed CCAP outside of public forums and in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, the state law that governs how publicly elected officials vote on and discuss matters of public interest.
By mid-2020, a tightknit group of wealthy Southlake parents that included prominent Republican party fundraising couple Andy and Leigh Wambsganss was on the offensive, marshaling funds from a nine-year-old political action committee, Southlake Families, to bankroll a lawsuit that successfully placed an ongoing restraining order on CCAP’s implementation that November.
In the months leading to the indictments, the PAC began supporting two school board candidates, Cameron “Cam” Bryan and Hannah Smith, who were seeking their first Carroll school board seats, largely on an anti-CCAP platform, through the May 1 general elections.
The local prosecution of open meetings act violations was unprecedented in Tarrant County. Open records requests that I submitted to the county show that, before April, the local district attorney’s office prosecuted zero open meetings act violations in the 40 years prior, the scope of my request.
Multiple elected officials, former elected officials, and longtime government watchdogs told me that the DA has historically dismissed documented cases of open meetings act violations when they were reported. One former assistant district attorney (not Burkes) told me that, until April, the DA’s office had purposely avoided indicting elected officials in the weeks leading up to an election. Prosecutors did so to avoid the appearance that the DA’s office — which is supposedly a nonpolitical adjudicator of justice — was trying to influence a local election, I was told.
DA Wilson maintains that the prosecutions were sought because the evidence proved that the crime was “committed beyond a reasonable doubt,” but one local elected official who asked not to be named said he was recently told by a Tarrant County prosecutor that such violations would amount to only a “slap on the wrist.”
Moore and Carlton were not afforded a slap on the wrist. The Southlake parents and longtime community volunteers currently face Class B Misdemeanor charges, hypothetical jail time if found guilty, and a backlogged court system. Moore and Carlton did not respond to my requests for comment, but both board members have retained high-profile attorneys — the type of representation that can easily require a nonrefundable retainer fee of $10,000 or higher.
In the days following the indictments, the district attorney’s office reached out to several local media groups and forwarded copies of the indictment, according to DA communications we obtained through open records requests. The Fort Worth Weekly was not on the list of press contacts at the time. No reporters raised questions about why the DA was indicting two school board members just weeks ahead of a contentious school board election.
“You sent a grand jury document pertaining to Todd Andrew Carlton,” wrote Dionne Anglin, a reporter with Fox 4 News, in response to forwarded copies of the indictments. “Is there one that exists for Michelle Moore [that’s] relating to the same case? You don’t need to send it. I just need to know if both were indicted.”
The emails suggest that the local DA’s office had a special interest in seeing that the indictments reached media outlets in the weeks leading up to the election, an action that several sources say marks a departure from the office’s historic stance of not meddling in elections.
As news of the indictments spread, DA Wilson was updated on the media coverage. It is not uncommon for district attorneys here and across the country to promote indictments and prosecutions that reflect favorably on prosecutors.
“This story, with information from the indictments, ran last night,” a DA staffer told Wilson via email on April 6, referring to Anglin’s story.
The following day, the same staffer again updated Wilson with a summary of news coverage about the indictments.
“I didn’t know if you wanted to see the Carroll ISD indictment stories,” the staffer wrote. “Many quote from the indictments. Some include brief statements made about this during Monday night’s school board meeting. Most include a comment from Moore’s attorney,” who has publicly stated that the indictments are a tremendous waste of public resources.
During the following school board meetings leading up to the election of two Southlake Families-backed board members, parents who were opposed to the racial equity measures outlined in CCAP attended school board meetings and held signs with blown-up mugshot photos of Moore and Carlton. One Southlake mother told us on condition of anonymity that the DA prosecutions amounted to an attempt to “blackmail these [two] board members into resigning by having them arrested.”
Indeed, one source close to Moore told me that Moore had directly conveyed that very theory. Moore, the confidential source told me, has allegedly been told by county prosecutors that the criminal charges would go away if she resigned — a move that would further sway the seven-member board in favor of the PAC’s right-wing agenda (“ Right-Wing Extremists Taking Over Carroll School District?” Sep. 15).
DA Wilson said in an email that the Carroll indictments were not politically motivated and that her office sought the criminal charges because guilt could be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Burks said that DAs often weigh factors other than evidence when choosing to prosecute a case, though.
“District attorney offices have broad discretion on who to charge, what charges should be brought based on the evidence presented to them, and on how those cases should be resolved,” Burks said.
Allison Campolo, Tarrant County Democratic Party chair, said she is not surprised that Northeast Tarrant County has gained national attention for being a hotbed of CRT misinformation and right-wing efforts to take over school boards.
That area “has been a stronghold for far-right Republicans for a long time,” she said. “It is the birthplace of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, which is an extremely strong arm of the Tea Party. The fact that they are extremely wealthy goes a long way. Donors control politics. That’s not new.”
Multiple parents and former elected Southlake officials would speak to me only on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from a local civil and criminal Tarrant County court system that has and continues to favor the expressed aims of Southlake Families supporters and its founder, county commissioner candidate Tim O’Hare.
Critics of PACs often note that the committees obscure the original source of donations. On candidate disclosure forms, PACs are considered one donor, even if the donation stems from dozens or hundreds of contributors. As part of my research for this story, I spoke with a director at the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) about PAC disclosures. There is no single depository for PAC campaign and fundraising disclosures, I was told on background. Cities, counties, and state-level groups like TEC maintain independent databases. Still, for anyone looking for information about active PACs, TEC’s website is a great place to start.
The earliest filings by Southlake Families were submitted with the City of Southlake in early 2011. Those documents were not filed with TEC, which logged its first Southlake Families disclosures just last year. Broadly speaking, the TEC director told me, PACs file with TEC when they plan to spend funds across the state. In other words, the founders of Southlake Families were focused solely on local issues in 2011.
That was the year that Southlake residents voted against a proposition that would have allowed for the retail sale of liquor within city limits. Leading up to the successful effort to ban liquor stores, Southlake Families reported just under $10,000 raised. Then-mayor Laura Hill, who was an early and consistent donor to DA Wilson, contributed $500 to the effort. Leigh Wambsganss, whose annual Republican Party fundraisers would later tie Southlake Families to two consequential 2020 rulings against the Carroll school district, is listed as a founding member of the PAC.
O’Hare’s current campaign website names him as a “founder of Southlake Families PAC,” but he is not listed or mentioned anywhere on the 23 pages of disclosures that Southlake officials released in response to my request for “all founding documents for Southlake Families PAC.”
O’Hare did not respond to my requests for comment.
After 2011, based on my searches with Southlake and TEC, the PAC went dormant for several years. TEC filings show that the revived PAC now has around $130,000 on hand following tremendous fundraising successes in 2020 and early 2021. In mid-2020, Carroll school board members were preparing to review an early draft of CCAP. Critics of race-related reform began to falsely portray CCAP as a left-wing attempt to further racially divide Southlake, relying on debunked conspiracy theories about Critical Race Theory (CRT), the academic framework for understanding racism’s past and present influence in American government and society.
With the financial backing of Southlake Families, Southlake parent Kristin Garcia filed a lawsuit against the Carroll school board in September 2020, alleging that school board members David Almand, Todd Carlton, Danny Gilpin, Sheri Mills, and Michelle Moore knowingly violated the state open meetings act by discussing CCAP outside of public board meetings.
A legal brief filed by Garcia’s attorneys earlier this year describes one of the alleged dangers of CCAP’s proposed policies.
“The inclusion of ‘sexual orientation’ threatens the free-speech rights and religious freedom of Christian students and others who disapprove of homosexual behavior,” the brief reads, “and it threatens every student with discipline if they evince anything less than total and unconditional approval of homosexual conduct and same-sex marriage.”
Last October, Andy and Leigh Wambsganss held a ticketed fundraising event for several Republican judges, including Josh Burgess and Susan McCoy, both of whom soon after made two rulings in favor of Garcia’s PAC-backed litigation. In Texas, judges are chosen through partisan elections, meaning there is nothing unusual or unethical about Burgess and McCoy attending the October fundraiser, although several Southlake parents have expressed concern over the timing of the fundraiser and the subsequent court rulings. Andy Wambsganss did not respond to my request for comment.
“These parties at the Wambsgansses’ home are primarily for judges because Wambsganss is a lawyer,” one former elected Southlake official told me on condition of anonymity. “He wants all these [county] judges to know that he is raising money for them. He and his wife perceive themselves as being in the power-and-money game. When you attend an event that gives you thousands of dollars, you remember that. Most humans would know who paid them money.”
One month after the Wambsgansses held their fundraiser that, based on the ticket prices and guest list, could easily have raised six figures or higher for the Republican judges, Burgess, as part of his ruling on the Garcia lawsuit, placed the temporary restraining order on Carroll’s school board which bans discussion of CCAP and race-related issues. The school district is appealing that decision.
Several parents told me that the DA’s office, which has civil and criminal divisions, was advising Garcia’s legal team throughout the process, but there is no documented evidence that those communications occurred. I requested documents related to potential connections between the DA and Garcia’s legal team through open records requests and found none. A spokesperson for the DA said her office does not provide legal advice.
On Sep. 10, the district attorney’s office requested a legal brief from the Texas Attorney General’s office, which enforces the Texas Public Information Act, in response to several open record requests that I had submitted in the weeks prior. Legal briefs allow government groups to withhold information through legal loopholes in the Texas Public Information Act (“ Open Government or Legal Loopholes?” Nov. 2020). I was requesting emails to and from DA Wilson that contained the keywords “Leigh,” “Wambsganss,” and “Susan McCoy” within timeframes that were relevant to the indictments of Carroll board members Moore and Carlton. The request for a legal brief confirms that the communications exist. Certain communications, the DA’s office argues, can be withheld under government code 552.107, which pertains to attorney-client privilege.
In December, Judge McCoy issued a court order that compelled the Carroll school district to release information that directly relates to the April indictments, saying it is ordered that copies (written, recorded, or electronic) “sent [to] or received by a member of the Carroll Independent School District Board of Trustees to or from another member (or members) of the Carroll Independent School District Board of Trustees since October 26, 2018, that mentions, discusses, or references” CCAP, Texas Open Meetings Act, and campus diversity councils be delivered to Garcia’s counsel of records by Dec. 7.
The order was filed by Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder, a staunch O’Hare supporter who publicly commented about my recent reporting on Southlake Family’s judicial influence.
“This trash is why I and other GOP officials don’t comment to this rag who is funded by left-lending donors and visitors looking for a ‘good time while away from home,’ ” Wilder wrote on Facebook.
I emailed Wilder for clarification on what he meant by “left-leaning donors,” but in an email he said that he had no further comment on his public statement. The Fort Worth Weekly is independently owned and earns revenue from ad sales, not donors.
In May, O’Hare announced his candidacy for county judge. By August, O’Hare’s misinformation campaign against former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, the presumed Republican nominee for county judge, was in full force.
“It was revealed this week that Betsy Price has thrown her lot in with left-wing, Critical Race Theory advocates,” O’Hare’s press release reads. CCAP is based “in Critical Race Theory and other leftist ideology. The CCAP is currently subject to a court-ordered temporary restraining order after a concerned Carroll ISD parent sued multiple school board members.”
DA Wilson: Do you have time to meet me in the next few days? Thanks, Sharen
O’Hare: Hi. I’m in Florida through Saturday, but I can talk on the phone anytime or meet you when I get back.
Wilson: When you return please. Let’s set something up when you get back. I hope you’re on vacation.
O’Hare: Sounds good. We are. I’ll text you first thing Monday when I see my office calendar.
This unedited Aug. 10, 2021, exchange was the only communication I received when seeking texts, emails, and instant messages between O’Hare and Wilson. I subsequently requested all previous texts — the message struck me as part of a longer chain — but was told by the DA’s office that none existed.
A spokesperson with the DA’s office told me in an email that Wilson has “contacted multiple key community stakeholders to talk with them about the [Criminal District Attorney] building bond election,” she said, referring to the Nov. 2 bond election that may allot $116 million in bond monies to the DA’s office.
Stakeholders, as the name suggests, have some type of stake in an issue or proposal. O’Hare is not an elected official, and other than serving as the head of the Tarrant County Republican Party, he holds no significant position with the district attorney’s office or anywhere. I subsequently filed an open records request for a list of all “stakeholders” related to the $116 million bond and was told that there was no information responsive to my request. I asked the DA spokesperson for clarification but did not hear back.
Local Democratic Party Chair Campolo said both parties have begun focusing their efforts on flipping local entities like city councils, school boards, and the Tarrant Regional Water District.
“Now that these fights have been taken to the parents, you have whole communities tangled up in things [like school board meetings] that used to be very boring,” she said. “We have a county sheriff taking photo ops with Trump and a DA taking photo ops with [Sen.] Ted Cruz. This country is becoming more and more divided. I don’t know an easy way to fix that. I don’t think it is healthy [for citizens and politicians] to be on opposite ends of the spectrum.”
According to the first “legitimate poll” to date, Price recently tweeted, this one conducted by Ragnar Research, “I lead [O’Hare] 56% to 14%. This is proof that our positive, issues-based campaign is working. Tarrant County is the best community, and I will work hard to keep it that way.”
The reference to “first legitimate poll” was a not-so-subtle jab at O’Hare’s August poll that reported that just over 70% of potential voters polled said they were “less likely” to vote for Price after being fed false and misleading information by the Remington Research Group, a popular GOP polling group. The poll falsely stated that Price was a staunch supporter of Black-led protests last summer.
“Equally damaging, when informed that Betsy Price mandated the closure of businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic and urged churches to close their doors but allowed abortion providers to keep their doors open, 70% of Tarrant County Republicans were less likely to vote for Betsy Price,” another false and misleading poll result read.
O’Hare’s campaign is led by Axiom Strategies, the political consulting company founded by Jeff Roe, himself the former senior strategist for Cruz’s failed 2016 presidential campaign. On O’Hare’s official campaign Facebook page, he says, “Critical Race Theory is dangerous and has no place in our schools. As the founder of Southlake Families PAC, I helped lead an effort to prevent the infiltration of this divisive ideology in Southlake Schools.”
Below the post are several comments that perpetuate misinformation about Critical Race Theory.
“More important than the fact that CRT is anti-American is the fact that the CRT movement is anti-Christ and helps to establish a way for the Antichrist in the world [for a] one-world government,” one supporter commented.
The comment was liked by “Tim O’Hare for County Judge.”