Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Petitions vs Dallas constable, Hockley Sheriff highlight obscure civil removal process for county pols

After I wrote in support of Dallas county prosecutors filing a civil removal petition in Dallas against Constable Jaime Cortes, a Grits commenter opined that it "would be interesting to read a post about that obscure recall process." I agreed, I just knew nothing about it and had never heard of it being used before. Having been made aware of it, though, I couldn't help but notice its remarkable recent use in a case involving the Hockley County Sheriff. Reports AP:
A West Texas sheriff facing removal from office for alleged incompetence and official misconduct testified Tuesday that he believes the county official seeking his dismissal was out to get him.

Christopher Dennis, the county attorney in Hockley County, filed a complaint in August seeking Sheriff David Kinney's removal.

"Definitely out to get me; I don't know why," the suspended sheriff told jurors. "I thought it was very improper to put the investigator who helped him put this (case) together" in as Kinney's interim replacement. "He was part of putting all this garbage together."

Kinney's comments came during questioning by plaintiff's attorney George Thompson on the opening day of the sheriff's civil trial in Levelland, about 30 miles west of Lubbock. In a civil trial, the plaintiffs can call the defendant as a hostile witness.

In his opening statement, Thompson told jurors that Kinney oversaw a sheriff's office that had drugs and weapons in "drawers all over," instead in the property room.

He also told the panel that Kinney had lied to federal investigators looking into allegations that his chief deputy was involved in a methamphetamine ring. Kinney told investigators he would not tell Gordon Bohannon he had spoken with them about their probe.

"I think the evidence is clear he did inform" the chief deputy that he had talked to the FBI, Thompson said. "When you add it up, time and time again it's gross negligence, gross ignorance."

Kinney testified that he had told Bohannon about his talk with federal authorities. He also said he "did not agree" that his actions in supervising Bohannon and other deputies showed he was incompetent.

Bohannon is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to federal charges for his part in a meth trafficking ring.

Court documents show Kinney claims he was unaware of the meth ring involving his deputies. He has vowed not to resign, saying he did nothing wrong.
I've no idea how common this procedure is, but it's a potent tool against corruption in the hands county prosecutors that, until recently, I had no idea they possessed. Civil removal proceedings ... who'da thought?

For the record, here's the law governing civil removal petitions for county officials. It's a bizarre little statute in the Local Government Code I'd never noticed before.
Sec. 87.013. GENERAL GROUNDS FOR REMOVAL. (a) An officer may be removed for:
(1) incompetency;
(2) official misconduct; or
(3) intoxication on or off duty caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage.
(b) Intoxication is not a ground for removal if it appears at the trial that the intoxication was caused by drinking an alcoholic beverage on the direction and prescription of a licensed physician practicing in this state.
Those are remarkably broad categories. Parts (a)(3) and (b) about off-duty intoxication being grounds for removal except for drinking on the "direction and prescription of a licensed physician" are particularly odd aspects of the law. Is inebriation something being commonly prescribed among leaders in county government? I wasn't aware. As John Lennon observed, these are strange days indeed.

As for "incompetency," I can hear the wags already saying that if that justifies removal then they should pretty much all go. For the record in this statute:
"Incompetency" means:
(A) gross ignorance of official duties;
(B) gross carelessness in the discharge of those duties; or
(C) unfitness or inability to promptly and properly discharge official duties because of a serious physical or mental defect that did not exist at the time of the officer's election.
I had no idea "gross ignorance of official duties" was grounds for removing county officials. That happens all the time! How many district judges have I known who, once elected, didn't realize they automatically sat on the board of directors of the local probation department? How many county commissioners are all about roads in their campaigns, only to get elected and spend all their time talking about jail functions they know nothing about? Politics is a learn-on-the-job kind of deal and to some extent, "gross ignorance" is the price of term limits and anti-incumbent voter sentiment.

Still, I didn't realize average citizens could initiate such a potentially powerful petition against county officials. A district judge must then sign off and after that, it's up to the county attorney as to whether the case is vigorously prosecuted (not the District Attorney, according to LGC 87108[d]). After that, it's up to a jury. But as demonstrated by this case from Hockley County, removal petitions represent a potentially robust source of relief when confronted with allegations of corruption, misconduct, or even non-doctor sanctioned drunkenness, for whatever reason.

I'm interested to learn more about this mechanism; particularly how often it's been used in the past, under what circumstances, and how many of those efforts succeeded.


Anonymous said...

I would venture a "wag" that the intoxication thing goes all the way back to prohibition. I seem to remember stories about doctors prescribing alcoholic beverages back in those days. Just a "wag."

Rev. Charles

Don said...

Rev. Charles: Right. I think that may be where that came from.

Scott: I live in Levelland and know both the county attorney and (ex?) Sheriff Kinney, at least casually. Ordinary citizens didn't originate the petition; the County Attorney Chris Dennis did. It kinda surprised me that they got a jury together so quickly. Kinney is a good ol' boy, and well-liked. Chris is pretty young, but very smart. (he found this "obscure" little provision, after all). A lot of people agree with Kinney that they had an agenda. I don't personally subscribe to that. The reason I was surprised by the ease that the jury was seated is because public sentiment, from my observation, runs heavily with the sheriff. So I would have thought the prosecution or the petitioners or whatever you call them in this case, would have problems with a lot of locals.
I'm thinking I'll go down to the courthouse and listen to some of this tomorrow, if I can get in.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Please do, Don, and report back.

Anonymous said...

Judge Mays, Judge Foster and District Attorney Watkins, My name is Daniel Montes. I am writing you concerning Jaime Cortes. I was subjected to excessive force retaliation and suffered physical injuries. Jaime Cortes was present when this occurred along with Jeffrey P. Ransom, Demarquis F. Black, Thomas G. Jones, Wllie Faye Washington and David Bonner. They were all defendants in my federal civil rights lawsuit that reached the US Supreme Court #07-10. I do recommend as a citizen that Jaime Cortes be removed from office based on my personal interaction with him and his group. If you have any questions to call or email me. Thankyou, Daniel Montes, 682-429-7421,