A contentious 2014 primary race will spill over into a Smith County district court room at 9 a.m. Tuesday in a case of accused campaign sign theft.
John Furlow, a retired major general in the Texas Army National Guard and local accountant, is accused of instructing a man to steal campaign signs of his opponent County Judge Joel Baker a day before the 2014 Republican Primary.
According to the indictment, Furlow is said to be responsible for the theft of campaign signs valued at more than $1,500 but less than $20,000, which is the threshold for a state jail felony. State jail felony offenses are generally low level property or drug crimes and are punishable by confinement in a state jail facility for 180 days to two years and a fine of no more than $10,000. He also is accused of giving a false report to the investigating officer - a Class B misdemeanor.
In his opening statement, Scott Ellis, Furlow's attorney, said his client never instructed anyone to steal campaign signs. There were 22 campaign signs of various sizes taken. Ellis said Baker initially valued the stolen signs at $769, which would have resulted in a misdemeanor theft charge.
Mike Konieczny admitted stealing the signs to a Tyler Police Department investigator when they were discovered in his possession in November 2014, Ellis said. Ellis said Konieczny implicated Furlow after meeting with the investigator and Baker. Konieczny knew Furlow within local veteran support circles. He has not been charged in the crime.
Ellis said the case is an example of malicious prosecution at the behest of Baker. Ellis added that Konieczny was coerced to implicate Furlow and that the value of the signs was increased to maximize the possible penalty against him. Special prosecutor in the case waived his opening statement.
"This is politics at its worst," Ellis told the jury.
Baker responded to requests for interview following the trial's opening on Monday afternoon, saying it would be improper for him to comment on a case pending before a jury.
"The facts are for the jury to decide," he said.
Konieczny, Baker and the Tyler Police investigator are expected to testify in court.
A February 2014 campaign finance report showed Baker purchased 1,100 signs from DanWal Inc., including 100 24-inch by 48-inch double-sided signs valued at $3,368, or $33.68 each, and 1,000 24-inch by 18-inch yard signs valued at $2,748, or $2.75 each. Baker also purchased more than $1,700 in campaign sign materials from five local hardware and supply stores, but Ellis said only signs were taken.
Defacement, destruction and theft of campaign signs ocurrs in almost every election, especially in hotly contested local races. Allegations usually suggest the opposing candidate and supporters as the culprits but investigations rarely lead to an arrest or indictment.
Baker defeated Furlow, garnering 9,149 votes, or 57 percent, compared to Furlow's 6,914 votes, or 43 percent.