Fighting for Transparency & Fiscal Responsibility in Local Government

Texas Attorney General Files Amicus Brief in Pressley Case to Texas Supreme Court

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The Office of the Attorney General (OAG) has filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court of Texas in support of the petitioner – Laura Pressley. At issue in the amicus is whether all ballots, including Direct Recording Electronic voting machines (DREs), must follow the Texas Constitution’s requirement to number each ballot.

In question is the language of the Texas Constitution Article VI, Sec. 4 which reads:  “in all elections by the people, the vote shall be by ballot, and the Legislature shall provide for the numbering of tickets and make such other regulations as may be necessary to detect and punish fraud and preserve the purity of the ballot box.”. Note that the term “tickets” here is interchangeable with ballot – in other words every ballot must be numbered. Read More

In Kaufman – It Pays To Be A Crony

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Property taxes are the largest and most onerous taxes Texans pay. But in Kaufman County, it pays to be well-connected.

Donald Trump’s election victory has been broadly viewed as retaliation by hard-working Americans to frustration with today’s political establishment and its close companion—cronyism. The politically connected receive special treatment, while the average taxpayer foots the bill for both the taxes and special interest handouts.

While we often consider cronyism to be relegated to the federal level in Washington D.C., it’s not. Cronyism is alive and well in Texas, particularly at the local level. Kaufman County provides an egregious example with inequities found in the state property tax system.

The Mayor of Forney – Rick Wilson – appears to be a personal beneficiary of preferential tax treatment. Wilson was able to get the appraised value of various parcels of real estate significantly lowered, including his personal residence.

Of particular interest are two parcels that he owns under the name SKW Holdings. (SKW Holdings is Rick Wilson’s entity.) The two parcels – 6509 and 6513 – are commercial tracts of land along Highway 80 next to Baylor Hospital. Despite their prime commercial location, Wilson was able to get them zoned agricultural, known colloquially as an “AG” exemption. Unsurprisingly, the two parcels are not eligible for such treatment.

The two parcels were originally valued at $3,575,180 combined, against which the owner would pay an annual property tax levy of $59,915.87. The appraisal has been lowered 99.9 percent so that Wilson now pays only $76.45 per year. (6509.1 / 6509.2; 6513.1/ 6513.2)

On yet another separate 45.6 acre tract, Wilson carries a sweetheart value of only $173,510. As for his personal property, unlike many Kaufman county residents, his appraisal value has remained the same value for at least 6 years. All during a time period marked by record growth in appraised value. (Wilson’s Personal Values HERE)

Would you be surprised to learn that the cronyism doesn’t stop with elected officials?

In 2013, Kaufman County Appraisal District’s Senior Appraiser (who is now in Van Zandt) – (William) Tanner Grimes – purchased his personal residence for $142,900. At the time of purchase, the county listed the appraised value at $98,850. Shortly after purchasing it, Grimes reduced the value on his own property to $85,100 (See Record HERE).

In the years that have followed, Grimes’s personal account has had a number of odd valuation changes made to it. To date his house is not assessed at the amount he paid for it 5 years ago. For Grimes, it literally pays to be the senior appraiser!

Kaufman also doles out benefits to those who are properly connected to local government officials. In the late 2000’s, a religious group named Gospel for Asia moved their headquarters from Carrollton to Willis Point. It appears they understood how things really work in Kaufman (Skyview HERE).

The group showered local officials with an all expenses trip to Asia where officials were wined and dined. Upon return, the group’s entire compound – which includes 85 homes, various community structures, and a worship facility – was granted tax-exempt status.

County records show the appraised values of the entire property at $35,682,320 (Value HERE) yet they pay no taxes. State law explicitly designates only the worship center and the religious leader’s parsonage as eligible for exemption, not the entire housing development for the congregation.

In Kaufman County, however, the law is merely a suggestion.

While other examples of property tax irregularities have been provided by sources inside the county, these are the most egregious and offensive.

The cronies get away with it when they make their deals in the dark. Local citizens must get more informed and engaged to help hold them accountable. Conservative reformers believe that this duty entrusted to taxpayers will be much easier to accomplish if government is put back inside its constitutional box.

In other words, a smaller government with less power and fewer responsibilities is much easier to hold accountable than the system we live under today.

Gary Ritchie’s Court Administrator Indicted on 7 Counts

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We first broke the story about an investigation into JP District 6, Gary Ritchie’s court, back in July. An audit of his court revealed missing cash and a slew of bad to non-existent managerial oversight of the operation of the court, a function for which Texas statute holds Judge Ritchie accountable.

On September 1st we reported that Ritchie appeared before the grand jury in Tarrant County. That jury indicted Ritchie’s court administrator Shelly Ables on 7 counts. They include: unlawfully acquiring property valued between $20,000 and $100,000, mishandling property for which she was a fiduciary, and multiple counts of making a false entry on a governmental record with intent to defraud. Read the full indictment HERE.

Mrs. Ables was let go and quit on the same day last fall. She was Judge Ritchie’s court administrator for 23 years. She served as his campaign treasurer for most of that time as well, only having been removed as campaign treasurer this year. Their relationship has been described as a close personal friends, not just employer and employee.

The audit (READ IT HERE) and Shelly’s indictment raise more questions than they answer. Under Texas statute, Judge Ritchie is liable for all activities in his court. It is clear in the audit and other documents our office reviewed, that Judge Ritchie signed off on all the bank statements and deposits. What is unknown is whether the DA’s office is also considering any charges against Judge Ritchie. What will Ables reveal in her testimony?

Time will tell on all these questions. Meanwhile I’m sure his primary challengers will be asking these same questions very publicly. Which leaves us with: Will Ritchie run?

What Happened to Victoria Neave?

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Back in June State Representative Victoria Neave – Democrat from Dallas’ District 107 – was arrested on a DWI charge. At the time of her arrest she seemed contrite and apologetic. In her official statement She promised, “I will accept the consequences of my actions and will work to make this right.”
Well, where is she now? Court records show that Ms. Neave is doing everything she can to delay those consequences and obfuscate from justice. So far Ms. Neave has postponed her day in court three times, most recently pushing it off to October.  This is a far cry from accepting responsibility and making things right.

The good news for voters is that Ms. Neave has a very viable opponent. Mrs. Deanna Maria Metzger has been campaigning hard in the district to oust Neave. This contest is heating up and observers from around the state are keeping an eye on this race. It is, after all, one of the few swing districts in Texas and if Mrs. Metzger is successful she will swing this seat back to Republican control.

Meanwhile – will Ms. Neave ever face the music and take responsibility for her DWI? Will she continue to use her position as State Rep. to delay and obfuscate? Let us hope justice, or rehab, visit her soon.

UPDATE – Pictures – Grand Jury Hearing in the Gary Ritchie Case

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This morning Justice of the Peace Gary Ritchie appeared before a grand jury in a hearing regarding his court!

In July, DAT broke a story about JP Gary Ritchie and his court having an abysmal audit that documented multiple violations. Just one of those violations was the discovery that at least $19,000 in cash was missing. At least $16,000 of that cash was later found in a box at his court administrator’s home.

Today, Judge Ritchie appeared before a grand jury at the Tim Curry Justice Center. It remains to be seen whether the grand jury is hearing a case against Judge Ritchie or his court administrator Shelley Ables. In previous statements it appeared Judge Ritchie was ready to cast all the blame on his court administrator. That is a challenging position for Judge Ritchie to take. All the deposits and reconciliations DAT reviewed were signed by Ritchie himself. Regardless, state law holds the Judge liable for all activities in his court. Being a poor manager is not a defense of prosecution.

Whether the grand jury is hearing a case against Judge Ritchie or his court administrator is yet to be seen, but as we head into the March Primaries, this does not bode well for Judge Ritchie.

Interestingly enough, Judge Ritchie won’t be the only Judge in Tarrant County going into the primaries with ethical challenges. More on that soon…

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