New Special Prosecutors' Invoices
The Collin County Commissioners Court considered 3 invoices on Monday, April 25, related to the prosecution of TAG Ken Paxton. I believe it's important for me to inform the citizens regarding the outcome, as well as how I voted, and why. The court voted 4-1 to pay a bill for the defense of the prosecutors in a civil matter, brought on by a Collin County citizen, and 3-2 to pay two other special prosecutor invoices. In both instances, I voted "no", and I will share my reasoning below.
While I respect the authority of Judge Gallagher, the District Judge overseeing the Paxton case, I question the appropriateness of these bills, due to the arbitrary and capricious hourly rate that was set, which is in conflict with the Collin County's Indigent Defense Policy in place at the time of their appointment. While I may read past AG opinions and case law on the topic, I am of the mindset that while these opinions are written by learned and skillful attorneys, they are still opinions, and judicial process, including appeals and rulings of a higher court, take precedence. While the rule of law should certainly be followed, this is why we have a court system - to interpret and clarify the law, and the merits of the case in question, according to the law. Due to the unique nature of this case, I believe it is my fiduciary duty, as an overseer of the county budget, to appeal to a higher court to determine the validity and appropriateness of these payments, which I believe are out of compliance with the county's policy. While I stand alone in my desire to appeal through the courts, I remain steadfast in my opposition to paying these invoices for the special prosecutors and related costs, unless and until I am compelled by a higher court to pay them. It's also important to point out that while the Commissioners Court itself is not appealing to a higher court, a local Collin County resident has filed a mandamus suit with the Dallas 5th District Court of Appeals, for temporary relief. If and when the COA issues their ruling on the matter, my concerns will have been addressed, and I will respect their answer.
As I stated in court on Monday, I respect my colleagues and their independent assessment of the situation, as well as their difference of opinion. And while I will not speak for them, I do believe that their votes reflected a desire to save the expense of litigation and possible sanctions from the judge, knowing there was a very real possibility we would still be ordered to pay the bills. However, I am deeply disturbed that as the legislative body responsible for budgeting and oversight 90% of your county tax dollars, we are, in effect, writing a blank check, and do not have any control whatsoever over these unreasonable costs. When you compare the stated policy at $1,000 pre-trial and $1,000 per day in court vs. a potential cost of $2M, I believe that's a significant difference, and I would categorize it as unreasonable.
For background, I have been opposed to the hiring of out-of-town special prosecutors from the beginning. My opposition is directly on behalf of the taxpayers that I represent, as a steward of your tax dollars and has nothing to do with the personalities involved or the politics of the situation. We are statutorily mandated to follow the fee schedule of our indigent defense policy, which clearly states that indigent defense attorneys are to reside within Collin County. Why is this important? I'm glad you asked. To start with, hiring prosecutors from 250 miles away necessitates lodging, meals and travel expenses. In addition, our indigent defense policy (at the time they were retained) clearly stated that compensation was to be $1,000 pre-trial, and $1,000 per day for trial. Not $300 per hour, with no maximum - not to mention lodging, meals and travel. In addition, there are no provisions for interim payments. But since no other options for prosecution were explored (such as having a nearby county's District Attorney's office fulfill the role special prosecutor), the Collin County Local Administrative District Judge (at that time) independently appointed two special prosecutors, and agreed to pay them $300 per hour.
It has also come to the Commissioners Court's attention that there are other instances in which our judges have signed off on pay sheets with fees that are outside of the indigent defense policy, and the court has routinely approved these invoices as well. To be clear, these charges were not in compliance with the stated policy fee schedule, and were unbeknownst to the court members until recently. This is due to how our agenda material and disbursements are included within our weekly court agenda packets. I have subsequently expressed my desire for future disbursement requests outside of the indigent defense policy to be identified as such in our packets. .Furthermore, the policy was recently changed, in January 2016. I am still in the process of exploring our options, if any, to limit the court's exposure to spending beyond our available budgeted funds.
Finally, I also asked this rhetorical question in court on Monday during our discussion... What if this exact situation were replicated in a small, rural Texas county such as San Jacinto County - or Hays County? Answer: It would completely and utterly bankrupt the county. Possibly, they could double, triple or quadruple the tax rate for the following fiscal year - but I ask you, is it right to over-burden the taxpayers of an individual county in this manner? Especially when there are other means to appoint special prosecutors through partnerships with other local District Attorney's offices. Just because we are a large, generally affluent urban county, should our citizens be more "on the hook"? What figure would be considered "too much" for the citizens to bear - and how do you determine that figure? If this situation is not addressed legislatively, it WILL happen again somewhere. While we must be careful not to hamstring justice, I believe it is our collective duty, as your elected officials (including the Commissioners Court as well as the Board of District Judges who control roughly 10% of the county budget), to ensure that county operations are run as efficiently as possible - and we should make every effort to use your county tax dollars wisely.
If you would like to view the discussion amongst the court regarding this issue, you may go HERE and then go to time marker 2:56:30.
Regardless of your position on the issue, thank you for taking an interest in your county government. My door remains open, and I look forward to the final resolution of this case.