Former County Judge Joel Baker's trial set to begin Monday; accused of violating Texas Open Meetings Act

Joel Baker

The trial of former Smith County Judge Joel Baker on three misdemeanor charges of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act is set to begin at 9:30 a.m. Monday on the first floor of the Smith County Courthouse.

The meetings, which took place in 2014, were about some proposed unmanned speed cameras, which were discussed in executive session by members of the Smith County Commissioners Court. He was indicted by a Smith County Grand Jury in June, following an investigation by Texas Attorney General’s Office prosecutor Daniel Brody.

Brody confirmed the case will move forward on Monday.

Contacted last week, Baker’s defense attorney, Joe Murphy, said his client is eager to get to trial.

“We are very excited to present our case to the citizens of Smith County so everyone can know the true facts of what occurred in those three executive sessions,” Murphy said.

THE CHARGES

The indictment states that Baker “did knowingly close or aid in closing a regular meeting of the Smith County Commissioners Court to the public, and the closed meeting, relating to American Traffic Solutions (ATS), was not permitted under the Texas Government Code.”

Three such meetings took place: July 8, 2014, with all commissioners - Jeff Warr, Terry Phillips, JoAnn Hampton and Cary Nix - in attendance; July 29, 2014, with all commissioners; and on Aug. 12, with all members present except Phillips.

The contract was approved in open session in that Aug. 12 meeting, with some caveats listed by Warr, who made the second. He stipulated the court’s legal counsel, the purchasing director and the county auditor sign off on the contract before it was finalized.

Baker later signed the contract, though it remains unclear which - if any - of those officials actually signed off on it.

No other commissioners were named in the indictment. However, at least some of four commissioners were subpoenaed by the prosecution in the trial.

“I don’t have any idea what they will ask me,” Phillips said on Thursday, when he confirmed he was subpoenaed. “The only thing (the Texas Attorney General’s Office) told me is to make sure to tell the truth. I said, ‘you will get the truth. I guarantee you.’”

Nix said he also has been subpoenaed.

“I assume I will be asked about the testimony I’ve already given,” Nix said. “I’ll get up there and do what I need to do and go from here. Hopefully we will get some closure on this over the next few days.”

Commissioner Hampton declined to answer questions.

THE DEFENSE

For his part, Baker has declared he is innocent since the beginning.

In a statement released in June, Baker said he is innocent of the “perceived technical violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.”

“I am not guilty of these charges,” the statement read. “At no time did I or any member of the court knowingly violate the Texas Open Meetings Act. I maintain this was not a mission to find the truth, rather a political witch hunt. I look forward to producing the true facts to a jury. I am confident a jury will find these charges to be frivolous.”

In pretrial hearings, Baker’s attorney Joe Murphy went further and indicated Baker’s defense will largely rely on emails that may have been sent by Smith County citizens to the Attorney General’s Office. Those citizens are mostly members of government watchdog group Grassroots America-We The People.

Murphy confirmed that Grassroots leader JoAnn Fleming will be subpoenaed to testify in the trial.

Murphy has also sought records on classes members of the Court have taken over the years on the Texas Open Meetings Act.

When he requested those in an October pretrial hearing, Visiting Judge Jack Carter asked, “What’s the relevance of this?”

“The relevance of the records is that they’re going to bring up Judge Baker’s training and say he should have known better,” Murphy said. “My counter to that would be that so were the other commissioners, and they (weren’t charged with) anything.”

SEXTING

What won’t be at issue is a “sexting” scandal, which was the subject of an investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct - a disciplinary body Baker himself was vice-chairman of, until it suspended him without pay on June 21.

In the suspension, that scandal was not mentioned. It was purely based on Baker’s indictments on open meetings violations.

Brody, the AG’s prosecutor, says he has no interest in the emails and text messages that Baker allegedly exchanged with a woman who was not his wife.

Monday’s trial will be concerned solely with the alleged Open Meetings Act violations, he has said.

MOVING ON

In many ways, the county has already moved on from the issue. The contract with ATS, though signed, has not been implemented. When Baker announced that a deal with ATS for traffic cameras in school zones had been reached in April 2015, he encountered widespread community opposition. Mayor Martin Heines signed a letter signaling the city of Tyler’s opposition to the cameras, and Sheriff Larry Smith rejected them as well. Smith, in fact, asked for an Attorney General’s opinion on the legality of such cameras.

In May 2015, commissioners voted to delay the plan indefinitely.

Baker was suspended from office on June 21. Commissioners appointed local attorney (and former Tyler City Council member) Nathaniel Moran to fill the position temporarily, as interim county judge. The position became permanent with Baker’s letter of resignation, which took effect Nov. 4. He will serve the remainder of Baker’s term, which lasts through 2018.

If convicted, Baker could face a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail or both for each of the three counts.

Twitter: @TMTFaith

 

With former Smith County Judge Joel Baker’s trial slated to begin Monday, here’s a timeline of the events leading up to his indictment on three charges of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act.

2014

 

■ JULY 8 - Possible partnership between American Traffic Solutions first discussed at Commissioners Court.

 

■ JULY 29 - Commissioners continue ATS discussions.

 

■ AUG. 12 - Commissioners approve contract with ATS pursuant to authorization by legal counsel, purchasing and county auditor. The measure passes 4-0, with Commissioner Terry Phillips absent.

 

2015

 

■ JAN. 28 - Agreement inked between Smith County and American Traffic Solutions to place 10 unmanned speed cameras in county school zones. Baker, Assistant District Attorney Phillip Smith and George Hittner, the general counsel for ATS, signed the agreement.

 

■ APRIL 20 - Tyler officials learn of the program when the county invited them to an informational lunch set for April 27.

 

■ APRIL 24 - Mayor Martin Heines sends a letter to Baker stating the city is opposed to the cameras.

 

■ APRIL 27 - Smith County issues a news release about the partnership with ATS. Members of the Commissioners Court said that’s when they learned the deal had been signed.

 

■ APRIL 28 - City of Tyler makes its opposition public, with Heines saying the city would refuse to process company’s tickets in the city’s municipal court. Shortly thereafter, Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said he also objected to the program, and asked for an Attorney General opinion on the legality of the county’s plan to use the fire marshal’s office to review the camera footage.

 

■ MAY 5 - Smith County commissioners delay the camera plan and call for more study and public input. County Tax Collector Gary Barber said his office will not be the enforcement arm of the program by denying vehicle registration to offenders.

 

■ MAY 6 - Grassroots America-We The People files a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office against Baker over the plan and requests a full investigation by the AG’s office.

 

■ MAY 12 - Grassroots files a formal complaint with Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham regarding the ATS contract.

 

■ MAY 21 - Bingham requests recusal from the matter and asks the AG’s office to appoint an outside attorney to investigate the case. He cites his office’s relationship to the Commissioners Court, including that Assistant District Attorney Phillip Smith serves as the Commissioners Court’s counsel and advises them on legal matters.

 

■ JUNE 2 - Baker said the ATS deal is on hold, but could move forward if schools become interested in the project over the 10-year lifespan of the contract.

 

■ JUNE 24 - The Texas Attorney General’s Office said it will investigate whether the Smith County Commissioners Court violated the Texas Open Meetings Act while negotiating the contract with ATS.

 

■ NOV. 10 - County commissioners approve contracts with three law firms - Potter Minton, the Dacus Law Firm and Flowers Davis - related to the Attorney General’s investigation.

 

■ NOV. 24 - Two Smith County commissioners confirm there’s an ongoing FBI investigation into matters surrounding the ATS contract.

 

2016

 

■ MARCH 4 - Baker sends letter to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct saying he plans to resign, citing stress and concern for his family.

 

■ MARCH 15 - Judicial Conduct Commission issues a statement indicating it will investigate Baker following allegations that he was exchanging explicit messages with a woman other than his wife.

 

■ APRIL 18 - Grassroots America-We The People files a lawsuit to have Baker removed from office. It lists two separate causes of action - incompetence, related to the ATS contract, and official misconduct, related to the sexting allegations. State District Judge Kerry Russell recuses himself from the lawsuit.

 

■ MAY 26 - Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham said he will recuse himself from the Grassroots complaint, clearing the way for State District Judge David Peeples, of San Antonio, to appoint an outside attorney.

 

■ JUNE 14 - Peeples appoints Palestine attorney and former State Bar of Texas president Jim Parsons to serve as the attorney pro-tem in the case.

 

■ JUNE 16 - A Smith County Grand Jury returns an indictment charging Baker on three counts of violating the Texas Open Meetings act, a misdemeanor, following an investigation handled by Texas Attorney General’s Office attorney Daniel Brody, who will serve as prosecutor in the case.

 

■ JUNE 17 - District Judge Christi Kennedy’s request for recusal from the AG’s case is granted by Administrative Judge Mary Murphy. Murphy appoints Sixth District Court of Appeals Judge Jack Carter, of Texarkana, to hear the case.

 

■ JUNE 17 - Joel Baker is booked into the Smith County Jail for the misdemeanor Texas Open Meetings Act violations. He is released on bond.

 

■ JUNE 21 - The State Commission on Judicial Conduct suspends Baker without pay. The order cites the three Open Meetings Act indictments as causes.

 

■ JULY 19 - The Smith County Commissioners Court unanimously approves the appointment of former Tyler city councilman and local attorney Nathaniel Moran to become the acting Smith County judge.

 

■ JULY 20 - Baker appeals the State Commission on Judicial Conduct’s suspension. By law, he had 30 days to file an appeal.

 

■ JULY 22 - Nathaniel Moran takes the oath of office to become the acting Smith County judge in Baker’s absence.

 

■ AUG. 10 - Baker withdraws his request for a post suspension hearing in front of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, citing his confidence in Moran’s leadership.

 

■ AUG. 30 - Baker pleads not guilty to the open meetings violations in his first court appearance. The defense and prosecution argue over emails that will be used in the case’s discovery.

 

■ SEPT. 20 - An agreement is signed between the Commission on Judicial Conduct and Baker to settle its investigation into allegations that the judge sent inappropriate or explicit messages to a woman while on official business. That agreement includes his resignation as Smith County Judge, effective Nov. 4.

 

■ DEC. 12 - Baker’s trial is set to begin at 9:30 a.m. in the Smith County Courthouse.

 

- Compiled by Faith Harper and Roy Maynard

 

Source: Tyler Morning Telegraph archives

 

Recommended for you