Posts by Aaron Harris

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?

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…

New Active Voter Fraud Investigation – Nueces County

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The Office of the Attorney General of Texas announced a third investigation in Nueces County. The Nueces County Clerk, Kara Sands, filed a complaint with the AG’s office regarding various election irregularities in the local municipal elections. Interestingly enough, similar to Tarrant County, the election which triggered the complaints was a water board election. That complaint has now resulted in three active criminal investigations.

I was honored to work alongside Nueces County Clerk Kara Sands during both the regular and special sessions on election reform bills. Kara was a pivotal stakeholder in getting SB5 and other bills through the Texas House and ultimately to be signed by the governor. She was instrumental in getting county clerks and election administrators on board for various aspects of the reforms, including the controversial repeal of the nursing home bill. She has seen first hand the results of these policies on the ground and knows how we need to secure our elections.

A news report of the most recent investigation in Nueces County can be seen HERE.

The OAG’s active investigations in Nueces County include both in person fraud as well as mail in ballot fraud.

With the passage of SB5, the addition of organized election fraud to the State RICO statute and other reforms passed this session, we are hopeful that over the next few years we can finally put an end to these types of activities.

House Ballot Fraud Bill – HB184 vs. HB47

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The special session is nearing an end and the Governor’s call for increased penalties for mail in voter fraud has stalled in the House in the form of HB 184.

There is a lot of discussion, driven largely by our office, as to the differences between HB184 by Goldman and HB47 by Schofield. We are fighting FOR HB184;, let me tell you why.

First, let me back up and discuss something that happened during regular session. The TX Legislature passed a bill we now refer to as the “nursing home” bill. This  flew under the radar and was added at the last minute as an amendment. This bill opens up every nursing home in Texas to ballot harvesting. It creates an unfunded mandate on every county, and many, many other problematic details. The Democrat party has been bragging about getting this bill passed. One party official even bragged that the Dem party has already calculated this bill will get them nearly 300,000 additional harvested ballots. They did the math;, they wrote the bill;, they got it passed. THIS IS A VERY BIG PROBLEM. This week over 100 county election administrators signed a letter opposing this legislation.

The main difference between HB184 and HB47, both as amended, is that HB184 FULLY REPEALS the nursing home bill. Let me be clear – the “nursing home” bill is flawed at every level, it cannot be “fixed”, but  must be repealed. HB47 naively attempts to patch the “nursing home” bill. This is like trying to fix Obamacare. Repeal and Replace is the only viable choice. This difference alone is worth the fight.

Aside from that, HB184 differentiates itself from HB47 in several ways., I’ll list some of them here:

HB184 prohibits electronic signatures on applications and carrier envelopes. HB47 does not.

HB184 requires original copy of applications, no more faxed or emailed mail in applications. HB47 does not.

HB184 adds preservation of ballot materials including canceled ballots and a mandatory reporting to the AG’s office. This is vital to track and document fraud for the long term elimination of it. HB47 does not.

HB184 includes voter impersonation penalties for using a mail in ballot., HB47 does not.

HB184 clarifies that the two signatures on the application and carrier envelope must both be that of the voter, not just match. HB47 does not.

HB184 adds liability to ballot board members who accept invalid signatures. HB47 does not.

HB184 adds new wording to Sec 276.013 of the election code which defines voter fraud more clearly and gives law enforcement the tools they need to go after violators

HB184 simply covers more detail and stitches up the existing problems in a more solid manner. This is largely due to the fact that HB184 was written by a team: from the AG’s office, to Rep. Goldman’s office, Governor’s office, Sen. Hancock’s office and others. HB47 has 9 sponsors, while HB184 has 81 Authors and Co-Authors. 81!

HB184 is the better bill. The clock is running out.

 

 

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