Correction: In our recent story describing the alleged theft of 10 oz. of silver through either Tarrant County’s 360th District Court or the District Clerk’s office (“Contemptuous Courts,” Sep 7), the reporter mistakenly identified the judge who ordered jail time to the owner of the precious metal. It was Judge Kenneth Newell, not Judge Patricia Baca Bennett. We regret the error.
The alleged theft is now the subject of a criminal investigation.
Michael Burns vividly remembers the day Judge Patricia Baca Bennett sentenced him to two months in Tarrant County Jail. It was the fall 2019, and Bennett’s 360th District Court told him that he was four years behind in child support. Burns maintains that he had paid the expense in the form of day care for his 14-year-old daughter, but Bennett did not accept that argument.
Since the courts did not acknowledge his several years of day care payments as a form of child support, Burns provided the court with collateral in the form of a silver bond currently worth around $3,000 but many times more once the bond reaches maturity. He believed the bond would either settle the case or, at the very least, demonstrate a good faith payment that would prevent him from going to jail.
A filed copy of the bond that bears the stamp of Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder shows that Wilder’s office accepted the bond on Sep. 17, 2019.
Wilder recently denied accepting it, which makes proving that Burns made a payment to family courts in 2019 all the more difficult.
“We have not accepted a bond from you,” Wilder wrote to Burns in March 2022.
The disappearance of the collateral valued at 10 ounces of silver had devastating consequences for the father of two.
“It was terrible,” Burns recalled, referring to his time in jail. “I split time with my son 50-50. Somebody had to pick him up and take care of him for the other 50% of the time. He was 15 at the time. My daughter was so afraid of [visiting a] jail that I didn’t get to see her for two months. Those were two months without an income.”
On the day of his arrest, Burns said he was about to close a large roofing job for his employer. That deal fell through, and Burns said his boss was left scrambling to run the businesses without him.
Bennett did not respond to requests for comment.
Burns provided court records that show Bennett apparently wrongfully sentenced him twice in 2019.
Bennett’s 360th District Court charged him in late September 2019 for contempt of court for an alleged missed court date. Burns alleges the arrest is unlawful because he arrived on time for his 8:30 a.m. meeting, but an associate judge did not call him for several hours. Burns, who does not remember the judge’s name, said he did not have an attorney with him that day and thus cannot provide proof of his wait time.
Sheriff deputies arrested him on Oct. 1, 2019, and jailed him for two days. Bennett levied the two-month sentence for unpaid child support the following week. Family court judges have authority to send defendants to jail for contempt of court, but Burns alleges both actions could be seen as unlawful or at least unethical because he had shown up to court and sent the county the silver bond.
Following his release from Tarrant County Jail in late 2019, Burns thought the ordeal was over and he could finally focus on raising and supporting his two children. He had served his sentence and county officials had possession of his silver bond, or so he thought at the time. In March 2022, Bennett’s court told him he was still liable for past-due child support.
“That is when I decided I needed to find out what happened to the bond,” he said.
Burns hired a broker who specializes in trading bonds and learned that the silver bond accepted by county officials had been sold and placed on the open market. Burns provided documents from the broker that describe the bond’s location within two massive portfolios worth billions.
Burns alleges that the theft of his silver bond occurred at the 360th District Court, the district clerk’s office, or at the state comptroller’s office, which regularly accepts and manages court bonds. The comptroller’s office did not respond to my requests for comment.
Considering Wilder’s email denying accepting the bond, the stamped district clerk copy of the bond, and evidence that the bond had been sold, Burns believes he has compelling evidence of theft, fraud, and possible identity theft.
When asked in an email if he accepted the bond, Wilder dodged the question and instead attacked Burns’ credibility by calling him a “sovereign citizen,” a derogatory term used to describe domestic terrorists and individuals who believe they are above the law.
“We have previously responded in an appropriate way to Mr. Burns,” Wilder wrote via county email.
But Wilder’s response is inappropriate, especially coming from an elected official responsible for maintaining official court documents and records. Burns provided copies of an email exchange with Wilder’s office as an example of the district clerk’s apparent hostility toward him.
“You continue to harass my deputies by phone, email, and in person,” Wilder wrote Burns in March. “This behavior will not be tolerated. You must cease your threats and attempts to intimidate my deputies regarding this alleged bond. Your claims are legally unintelligible.”
Burns says he did not threaten county officials. Wilder appears to be forgetting that he works for Tarrant County taxpayers, Burns said.
Wilder’s “office was caught red-handed,” Burns said. “A conspiracy to cover it up has ensued.”
Burns filed a sworn affidavit with the Department of the Treasury indicating potential crimes involving theft by Wilder or some other unnamed government official. Burns said he has also filed sworn complaints with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), FBI, and Secret Service, the last due to the federal law enforcement agency’s extensive work investigating identity theft.
Now that he has gone public with allegations that a Tarrant County employee may have stolen his property, Burns fears retaliation from Bennett. During a recent court hearing, Burns alleges that she made verbal statements that show she is biased against him.
“When I was near the judge and she was swearing me in, she said the jails are overpopulated right now,” Burns alleges. “She said she was going to reschedule my court date two months out and hope that the population is not as bad then. She reset my court date, so she has time to weed out how many people are in the jail, so they have room for me. She is assuming I’m guilty”
The father said news stories about Bennett have further fueled his concern that she uses her position to retaliate against perceived enemies. Last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit dismissed a lawsuit by former Tarrant County Associate Judge Diane Haddock, who alleged that Bennett carried out a campaign of harassment that created a hostile work environment (“ Family Court Feud,” Nov. 2018). Last year also saw the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct issue a formal warning against Bennett for racist remarks she made on social media.
Burns’ upcoming court hearing is next week. He is representing himself, he said, because he alleges his last attorney advised that he plead guilty to failing to pay child support for four years. Doing so, Burns alleges, would have absolved the county of losing or possibly stealing his property.
“How willing are they to try to shut me up and keep this ruse going?” he asked. “They are liable for that bond. They are on the line for damages and all the people who were put out when I was in jail for two months. It’s a deep hole.”
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.
This article has been updated to correct the figure of 10 ounces, which is the value of the silver bond.