Indictments make for great headlines, and district attorneys know it. When a grand jury found grounds for indicting two Carroll school board members in April, the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office capitalized on the moment by courting several prominent North Texas reporters with the breaking story (“ Rising Partisanship,” Oct. 13).
Missing in the email thread between a DA staffer and reporters was any questioning of the timing of the indictments, which played right into the hands of county judge candidate Tim O’Hare and other right-wing extremists who are basing their professional and political careers on false narratives over the Black Lives Matter movement and Critical Race Theory or CRT.
Carroll school district was weeks from a contentious board race that was flooded with tens of thousands of donor dollars from powerful Republicans who give generously to the campaigns of DA Sharen Wilson and conservative Tarrant County judges. The indictments validated views held by many of those same generous donors that the city had fallen under the sway of “Marxists” who are hellbent on turning the wealthy suburb of Southlake into a communist gulag that brainwashes students into feeling guilty about being white when, in fact, an increasingly diverse Southlake population was simply asking school leaders to acknowledge that the city has serious racism problems and that reasonable school policies could mitigate incidents of bigotry on the part of white students — in 2018 and 2019, videos of several white Southlake high schoolers chanting the n-word went viral, and that’s only the beginning.
Two days after we published that expansive look into increasingly partisan Tarrant County courts, news broke that the DA office had announced another high-profile grand jury investigation, this one into Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD).
“This office has received a complaint and information regarding actions of the Tarrant Regional Water Board,” wrote Wilson, according to a document first published by the Fort Worth Report. “The purpose of the letter is to put you on notice that the Tarrant Grand Jury has opened an investigation into actions taken by the Tarrant Regional Water District.”
No, the investigation isn’t looking into Tarrant County’s ridiculously high water bills (“ Rising Water, Rising Bills,” April 14), although that would probably be a better use of taxpayer money.
The grand jury will examine how a former general manager’s retirement was handled. TRWD’s new board recently axed a proposed $300,000 payout to Jim Oliver which was promised by a former TRWD board member. Oliver, who spent 30 years at the helm of the governmental group that oversees flood control and drinking water and also finishing the stalled $1.2 billion Panther Island development, argued that the $300,000 was for paid time off that he was due. The current board disagreed. Oliver subsequently retained attorney Jason Smith, and the matter was settled for $161,647.
The indictment of the TRWD will likely help DA Wilson, who is seeking reelection, garner public support ahead of next year’s midterm election that will see three county commissioner seats, including that of county judge, potentially change hands. Former DA prosecutor Tiffany Burks will face Albert Roberts in the March 2022 Democratic primary, and the winner will go against Wilson next November.
Under Wilson’s tenure, Tarrant County’s commissioners court, which leans conservative, has benefited from having the county’s top prosecutor as a political ally. One recent example: the DA’s documented support of Constable Jody Johnson’s decision to skirt the state constitution by maintaining his elected position while he runs for the seat that will soon be vacated by his father, longtime commissioner JD Johnson (“ Skirting the State Constitution?” Sep. 15). Recent communications between a DA staffer and the Star-Telegram, which we received via an open records request, show that the local district attorney’s office openly supports Jody’s decision to retain his elected position while seeking higher office.
Tarrant’s commissioners court was on the minds of Texas state legislators when they recently passed House Bill 988, which applies to all Texas appraisal districts. The bill will stop the long-standing local practice of misusing allotted votes to skew how board members of appraisal districts, including the Tarrant Appraisal District (TAD), are elected. TAD, the governmental group that appraises properties and awards exemptions, is governed by a five-member board. Every two years, taxing entities that are funded by property tax income (school districts, cities, county colleges) are allotted votes to elect TAD board members based on the respective size of those groups. The commissioners court represents one of the largest taxing entities in the county, and local elected leaders who oversee the taxing entities have historically misused their influence to elect favored TAD board members.
During a public meeting in 2017, the top-ranking county staffer, County Administrator G.K. Maenius, said the court’s votes should be delayed to give the commissioners a “better understanding as to where we are on how the other jurisdictions have cast their votes […] if that’s important to you on how we place our votes,” which means he was urging Tarrant’s elected leaders to delay their vote as a means of swinging the final tally toward candidates of the court’s choosing.
The new house bill, which was conceived by local Realtor Chandler Crouch, compels large taxing entities to cast their votes early enough for smaller groups to have a fair chance at protecting their electoral interests.
Those last two examples are only the most recent reminders of how Tarrant County’s good-ol’-boy club operates, and DA Wilson is one of the most powerful players in that club. TRWD has a longstanding history of supporting nepotism, graft, and egregious misuses of taxpayer money, but investigating cronyism at one Tarrant County old-boy club doesn’t absolve another from scrutiny.
Beyond being politically expedient for the DA, the opening of a grand jury investigation into TRWD dealings could have catastrophic consequences for the DA’s ability to ethically prosecute former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean, the white man who fatally shot Atatiana Jefferson, a young Black woman, while she played video games with her nephew in the home that she shared with her mother two years ago.
Dean’s lawyer, Jim Lane, is a current TRWD board member and potentially a target of the grand jury’s investigation. When Dean’s trial begins in November, Lane could reasonably argue that the DA-led investigation is an act of intimidation.
This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not necessarily the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions will be edited for factuality and clarity.