Sunday, March 12, 2017

Celebrating Sunshine Week: A look back at "Cameragate"

Sunshine Week?

This is the first I'm hearing of it.  Didn't spend much time researching it.  But apparently March 12-18 will mark the 12th annual celebration of this event that is about transparency in government.  Sounds like much of the discussions and events will be about the Freedom of Information Act and other issues related to journalists' access to government information.  But I'm going to expand this a little bit and talk a little about transparency in government in general.

What was Cameragate?

"Cameragate" was a local scandal that exemplifies what kinds of things happen when local governments work in secret.  It would lead to the criminal conviction of Joel Baker for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act.  In January, 2015, then Smith County Judge Joel Baker signed a 10-year contract with an outfit in Arizona called "American Traffic Solutions," or ATS.  The arrangement was something like this:  ATS would supply the county with 10-20 mobile automated camera units that would catch drivers speeding in school zones.  Speeders would be assessed a fine (termed a "civil penalty") of $150.  After the county paid an initial set-up fee of $8,700 per camera, ATS would keep half of the revenue, and the rest would go to the county.  And by calling the fine a "civil penalty," the county could bypass such Sixth Amendment-guaranteed legal machinations like allowing the accused to appear in court before guilt was determined and a punishment assessed!  Everyone wins, right?
Well, the deal was bad for the county for so many reasons.  Among them was the fact that the county could still be on the hook for as much as $2.4 MILLION for cancelling the contract early!  And that was exactly what happened.  When the plan was announced later that spring, the public and just about every elected official in the county cried foul, and the commissioners scrapped the program.  But what got Joel Baker and the commissioners in hot water was that the scheme was hammered out and approved during three meetings--two closed sessions and one open meeting--in the summer of 2014 that were in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, or TOMA.

Ah, the old gang:  Former Smith County Judge Joel Baker, Commissioners
Cary Nix, Jeff Warr, JoAnn Hampton, and Terry Phillips

It's complicated and I won't go into too much detail here.  But TOMA is Texas' "sunshine law" that, but for a few exceptions, forbids elected officials from doing government business in secret.  And, when matters are to be voted on in open sessions, the public has to be given advance notice about such items in a way that would allow the average person to understand what was being decided.  It is a crime for an elected official to even be present at an  illegal meeting. (An official is expected to walk out as soon as he or she determines that a meeting is in violation.)  Commissioners Cary Nix, Jeff Warr, and JoAnn Hampton were all present at all three of the sessions.  Commissioner Terry Phillips, who opposed the contract, was present at the last open session when the contract was approved.

Why I'm not letting this die

As far as the local news people are concerned, "Cameragate" died when the case against Joel Baker ended in a plea bargain in December, 2016.  But I'm disturbed that the other county commissioners--JoAnn Hampton, Jeff Warr, Cary Nix, and Terry Phillips--are still in office and were never prosecuted for their own apparent violations of TOMA.
You see, laws like TOMA and FOIA only work if officials who violate those laws are prosecuted for their offenses.  That does not happen nearly enough, which is probably why Baker and his clownishioners thought they could get away with this.  Baker got off with a slap on the wrist:  a $200 fine and a month of "deferred adjudication."  The fine is ironic because it is less than what would normally be assessed for speeding in a school zone!  Ha!  Why weren't the other commissioners prosecuted?  I can only guess.  But my theory is this:  The Republican Attorney General, whose office pursued this case, understood that if he took down a whole county government involving several Republican officials, it would look like a local infestation of corruption in the Republican Party.  Just prosecuting Joel Baker made it look like there was just one "bad apple," which isn't too bad for the Party.  (I'm a Republican, by the way.)  And maybe Baker got off easy because, had he gone to trial, the defense would have paraded three other Republicans in front of the public, under oath to testify.  They would have had to either perjure themselves or admit that they too had violated TOMA.  So, they just offered Baker a sweet deal he couldn't refuse and assistant AG Dan Brody was able to brush of his hands and ride back to Austin with another "conviction" under his belt.
And think about this:  There is a saying about corruption that goes something like, "If you see a rat, there are probably ten that you don't see."  Who knows what else has been hidden from us?  Hell, nobody ever even looked into what motivated Baker, Warr, and the rest of these idiots to risk political suicide by supporting this stupid plan in first place!

What can we do now?

Well, the criminal case is a done deal, as the statute of limitations has expired.  But we can still get rid of these people--and we need to for many other reasons.  We still have the vote.  Jeff Warr says he won't run again, so we'll see about that.  But Cary Nix and JoAnn Hampton come up for reelection in 2018, which will be here sooner than you think.  We need opposition candidates, then we need to get out the vote.
Vote the bums out in 2018!

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