Although their mandate is to serve the public selflessly, many district attorneys falsely believe they’re above the law. One example is disgraced Ellis County DA Patrick Wilson, who left office in early 2020 after announcing he would not seek reelection. In a 2018 lawsuit seeking to remove him from office, attorney Dan Gus alleged that the DA abused his position by spying on and retaliating against a political opponent. The lawsuit was dismissed.
“It’s certainly frustrating when you make credible, serious allegations of felony conduct by the district attorney’s office and a judge rules without explanation and without any hearing,” said Gus, who filed the suit on behalf of Mike Jones, an Ellis County constable and the alleged victim. “It was dismissed out of hand with no explanation and no hearing.”
In Tarrant County, the name Tim Curry looms as large as ever. Based on off-the-record comments by associates, this severely irks Tarrant County DA Sharen Wilson. Curry, the longtime Tarrant County DA who died in 2009, is the namesake of the downtown justice center where Wilson and her administration have offices. She lost her chance to oversee construction of a Sharen Wilson Justice Center when voters rejected a proposed $116 million bond program last fall. With her legacy in tatters, Wilson soon after announced she would not seek reelection in November.
She will be leaving a district attorney’s office that has lost the public’s confidence.
During her tenure, she has proven she is beholden only to white Christian Nationalists. Last year, she maliciously prosecuted two school board members in Southlake as what could be seen as a personal favor to county judge candidate Tim O’Hare, the far-right Southlaker credited with leveraging the paranoia over Critical Race Theory to further his political ambitions.
More recently, DA Wilson has drawn public backlash for the long-delayed murder trial of Aaron Dean and for her vocal support for prosecuting doctors who perform once constitutionally protected abortions.
These and many other egregious betrayals of the public trust serve as a reminder that justice is never blind when administered by a tyrant.
Possible Witness Tampering
Witness testimony is often used as key evidence in courtroom proceedings. For public statements under oath to be admissible, there is an assumption that the witness is not speaking under duress from a powerful or well-connected figure. For that reason, state and federal laws prohibit witness tampering, and offenders can end up with a felony conviction and spend up to 10 years in prison.
In late June, Tarrant County District Judge David Hagerman faced backlash from several defense attorneys for his alleged short temper in court and bias against Bob Gill. The attorney is representing Dean, the former Fort Worth police officer awaiting trial for allegedly murdering Atatiana Jefferson in 2019 by shooting her through a back window of the home she shared with her mother.
As part of their formal argument to remove Hagerman from the case, Gill’s team assembled a list of witnesses that included Craig Driskell, executive chief deputy of operations at the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office. During the late June recusal hearing, Driskell said that DA Wilson recently called him. Under oath, Driskell told Gill’s team that Wilson, knowing that Driskell was scheduled to testify, had advised the chief deputy to “quit talking,” based on reporting by the Star-Telegram. The reporter of the story failed to remind readers that Wilson’s alleged directive, even under the guise of advice, constitutes witness tampering.
Jackee Cox, a local attorney with 30 years of experience in family, civil, and civil rights law, said no DA should ever tell a witness what they can and can’t say.
“The value of a witness depends on a witness reciting accurately what they saw and heard, not somebody else’s version of what they might have seen,” Cox said. “If someone tells you what to say or not to say, they are testifying for you and using you as a puppet.”
Wilson has not publicly commented on her phone call to Driskell.
Criminalizing Bodily Autonomy
District attorneys and prosecutors have wide discretion when deciding which laws to prosecute or not. This fact was apparently lost on Wilson when she publicly stated that her office plans to prosecute abortion providers and possibly the pregnant women who seek the once constitutionally protected procedure.
“Prosecutors do not make the law,” Wilson said in the public statement. “We follow it.”
The DAs in Dallas and Travis counties have publicly stated that they will not prosecute abortions following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June by the U.S. Supreme Court. Travis County DA José Garza said that he places public safety over partisanship.
“Republican leadership in the state of Texas, and nationally, has demonstrated time and time again that they are willing to play politics with our public safety and that there is no length to which they will not go to score political points,” Garza said.
One so-called 2021 trigger law already in effect in Texas makes nearly all abortions in the state felony crimes. Doctors could face life in prison and fines of up to $100,000 if indicted for the offense. Never in the history of the United States has a constitutionally protected right become the target of criminal indictments. With the U.S. Supreme Court staunchly controlled by religious zealots, there is little relief in sight from the potential prosecution of teens and women seeking autonomy over their bodies.
Local reproductive justice advocate Jen Sarduy, a Black woman, said Wilson’s support for criminalizing abortions demonstrates that Black and brown women are “worth less” to the DA’s office.
Based on data from Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy nonprofit, Black women in the United States are five times more likely to seek an abortion than white women.
“We know that abortion bans and prosecutions of abortions disproportionately affect Black and brown folks,” Sarduy continued. “We know that most people who have abortions are already parents. When Sharen Wilson makes a choice to prosecute abortions without apology, she is really saying families are not a priority.”
Covering Up Crimes?
The district attorney’s civil division, which handles the releases of government documents, has a solution for keeping information about unethical or potentially criminal actions by government officials from reaching the public or media — a mandate that anyone seeking those documents sign a court-ordered protective order.
At issue are dozens of county emails that detail alleged misuse of county property and personnel for personal use by Constable Jody Johnson. In 2018, Jacquelyn Wright, a former justice of the peace, requested those emails from the county as part of her defense following her 2018 indictment for fraud. Wright had angered Johnson, who worked under both her and his father, Tarrant County Commissioner J.D. Johnson, by demanding that Jody Johnson correct and resubmit his botched paperwork. DA investigators went digging for anything they could find on Wright and discovered the former JP had failed to update her homestead exemption to the correct address where she lived. Rather than handling the infraction as a civil matter, DA Wilson sought and obtained a felony indictment for Wright in late 2018.
Once the DA’s office realized that Wright had requested emails involving potential penal code violations by Johnson and his staff, assistant district attorney Mark Kratovil took steps to hide those communications from the public. Criminal Court Judge Robb Catalano, under the advice of Kratovil and possibly other ADAs, signed a protective order that expressly forbid Wright from ever releasing the county emails.
The emails “obtained by Tarrant County IT were then provided to attorney Mark Kratovil with the civil division of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office,” the protective order reads. “Mr. Kratovil has since conducted a review of the materials to ensure that any materials deemed privileged or confidential have been designated as such.”
Catalano signed the order on Aug. 5, 2019. A confidential source forwarded a copy of the protective order to one of our reporters, who then requested copies of the county emails through an open records request. The order makes no restriction on releasing copies of the protective order itself to the press, a decision the DA’s office probably regrets overlooking.
In February, the DA’s office initially attempted to block the release of the emails described in the protective order. Johnson was in a heated race against fellow Republican Manny Ramirez for the Precinct 4 commissioner position. One of our reporters told the DA’s office that withholding Johnson’s emails to county staffers listed in the protective order during an election could be seen as showing favoritism and elections meddling. The DA’s office released several emails.
Some of them reveal possible misuse of government property and personnel. According to one publicly released 2018 email, Precinct 4 administrator Nicole Benoit emailed Johnson using her government email during business hours.
“How does it look?” she asked the constable.
Attached were six pages of Johnson’s 2018 campaign finance report compiled, signed, and notarized by Benoit. When Johnson took office in 2016, he listed Sarah Hollenstein as his campaign treasurer, but Hollenstein’s name does not appear anywhere on any of Johnson’s finance reports. Between 2015 and 2022, county employee Benoit signed and notarized 11 of 16 of Johnson’s campaign finance reports.
“Thank you,” Johnson replied via his county email address 13 minutes later. “They look great.”
State and federal laws that govern the actions of public officials are written to prevent government employees from using government resources for personal gain. Violations of Section 39.01 of Texas’ penal code can result in criminal charges that range from misdemeanors to felonies, depending on the value of the misused government resources.
One year later, another email from Benoit to Johnson appears to again show him conducting personal campaign work during government business hours.
“We have a report due in 14 days,” Benoit wrote to Johnson in early 2019. “Do you mind if I start getting our ducks in a row and working on it? I might have questions, and I will need to access the [campaign] bank account. Is that OK?”
In March, Precinct 4 Republican voters chose Ramirez as their nominee for November’s commissioners court race. Ramirez is widely expected to win the midterm election against Democrat opponent Cedric Kanyinda and assume his first elected office Jan. 1, 2023.
Backing the Blue?
The June announcement that the murderer of Fort Worth police officer Garrett Hull was sentenced to life in prison made for good headlines. For anyone who followed the case, there was one glaring problem.
Defendant Timothy Huff did not shoot and kill Hull.
Huff, Dacion Steptoe, and Samuel Mayfield were under surveillance for allegedly committing a string of robberies in 2018, according to new coverage of Hull’s death. Police officers observed the three entering Los Vaqueros Sports Bar on the South Side on Sep. 14 and attempted to arrest the men as they left. The trio began shooting at police, and Steptoe shot and killed Hull before police returned gunfire and killed Steptoe.
In a public statement, the DA’s office said, “Texas law allows a person to be criminally responsible for the actions of someone else when there was a conspiracy to commit one crime and another felony occurs.”
Following the DA’s Facebook post on the trial verdict, dozens of online comments called her out for pouring public resources into a case that benefited the Thin Blue Line.
“The system jumps right into it when it’s the other way around, and that’s not fair,” one Black woman commented. “Atatiana’s killer, who is an officer, is still running around free.”
The Christian Nationalism Altar
Although supporters of the powerful and well-funded Christian Nationalism movement would disagree, the United States is not a theocracy but rather a secular democracy that favors no religion or sect over another. The base of power of this Christian Nationalism threat to our freedoms and civil rights is Southlake, and DA Wilson’s office has empowered and emboldened Christian Nationalists and shameless opportunists like county judge candidate O’Hare, a man who will peddle any lie if it furthers his self-serving political interests.
In late 2020, Southlake was facing a moral crisis. Parents and students were speaking out against years of racist and homophobic statements by parents and students in Carroll school district, which serves the wealthy and largely white suburb in Northeast Tarrant County. To help the community heal, and with direct input and help from local parents and students, Carroll’s school board drafted and prepared to adopt the Cultural Competency Action Plan.
Unprecedented Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality that summer led Republican operative Christopher Rufo to mischaracterize the academic and legal set of theories known as Critical Race Theory as an attempt by Marxist leftists to indoctrinate children across the country. CRT does not seek to blame individuals or groups for this country’s history of racism but rather to understand how institutions and domestic systems of law may have been influenced by bias toward one group or race.
In a public statement to two NBC News reporters in 2021, Rufo said his goal was to turn CRT into a “national brand that gave American conservatives a new frame for understanding what is happening around them.”
O’Hare, the former Farmers Branch mayor known for forcing landlords to check the citizenship status of tenants, began alleging without evidence that CRT was being taught in Southlake. O’Hare and his right-wing supporters began targeting school board members, alleging they were part of a cabal to force guilt on white children.
By fall 2020, the DA’s office authorized an investigation into something that has never been prosecuted in Tarrant County — violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
By allegedly texting each other about ways to address racism in the Southlake school district, board members Todd Carlton and Michelle Moore were charged by Wilson with allegedly breaking the state law that mandates that public officials can discuss certain matters only in public forums.
The vast majority of criminal cases accepted by the DA are submitted by law enforcement, but a Southlake police spokesperson told us his department had no involvement in the DA’s investigation that led to two misdemeanor charges against Carlton and Moore in April 2021, just weeks ahead of a contentious school board election that brought two hard right-wingers — Cameron Bryan and Hannah Smith — to the district’s seven-member board.
The indictments were a political win for O’Hare and his supporters, who have since solidified power in the suburb while seeking to expand their well-funded efforts to turn back the clock on progress in this country. In February, DA Wilson endorsed O’Hare for county judge, just weeks ahead of O’Hare’s primary win against former Fort Worth mayor Betsy Price.
This story is part of City in Crisis, an ongoing series of reports on unethical behavior and worse by local public leaders, featuring original reporting.