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It's the details, stupid

Taking a page from Investigative Reporting 101, former City Councilman Bob Stimson, who is running a heated race for the District 4 County Commissioner seat against incumbent Ken Mayfield, decided to check out rumors about the loosey-goosey way his opponent has allegedly run his office during the last four years.

An accountant by trade, Stimson requested a heap of Mayfield's records: office calendars, staff time sheets, etc.--under the Texas Open Records Act. Stimson says what he found--and didn't find--raises troubling questions about Commissioner Mayfield's ethics and laissez-faire approach to spending taxpayers' money.

For instance, Mayfield refused to let Stimson see records that would show exactly how much time the commissioner devotes to his private law practice and where he meets with clients. Although it is not illegal for the commissioner to continue practicing law while in office, it is against the law for him to meet with clients on county property.

The records Mayfield's office did turn over, meanwhile, show that his top administrative aide, Jim Hamlin, amassed a huge amount of comp time--most of which was undocumented--during his three years in the job. Hamlin used that comp time to campaign for Mayfield and for himself when Hamlin successfully ran in the Republican primary for county clerk last spring. Mayfield allows Hamlin and several other staff members to sign their own time sheets. The Dallas Observer found that in at least four instances, Hamlin did not earn the comp time he claimed he did.

"The devil's in the details," Stimson says. "It's painfully transparent. It has all the appearances of someone concocting a way for the county to fund and run a campaign. It's absolutely inexcusable."

Commissioner Mayfield, contacted early this week, denies Stimson's allegations. He says he doesn't have to hand over calendars documenting his legal work, because they include clients' names, which he says are "personal."

As for how he runs his office, Mayfield says he verbally approves his staff's comp time and occasionally looks at their time sheets. Hamlin, he adds, has done nothing wrong, because there is no rule or policy barring county employees from using comp time to campaign for public office.

In addition to Stimson's allegations, the Dallas Democratic Party recently accused Mayfield's county office of engaging in underhanded tactics by improperly attempting to replace three Democratic election judges in his district with Republicans. An election judge's role is to ensure that each voter who shows up at his polling place is kosher--that he has a valid voter registration card or proper identification. By coming down too hard on some voters or not hard enough on others, an election judge can cadge a few extra votes for the candidates in his party, but the numbers don't amount to much unless it's a very close race.

While Stimson's complaints seem picayune and the Democratic Party's micro-analysis of the election details seems paranoid, it shows just how pitched a battle the District 4 Commissioner contest is. In fact, it's the only real political horse race this season. If the 1994 election for county commissioner, in which Mayfield beat longtime Democratic incumbent Chris Semos by only 250 votes, is any indication, every vote cast in this contest will be crucial.

Even before Stimson requested copies of his office calendars, Mayfield's lock on a second term was undermined by concerns about his integrity. Since Mayfield took office, the Observer has reported about Mayfield's insistence on practicing law, which requires him to appear before county judges whose budgets he and his fellow commissioners set, and many of whom they have appointed.

Several high-profile Republicans, including City Councilwoman Donna Blumer, recently endorsed Stimson for commissioner--the first time Blumer's ever endorsed a Democrat--citing concerns about Mayfield's legal moonlighting, among other reasons.

As far as Stimson is concerned, if Mayfield has time to practice law, he's not working hard enough as a commissioner, which is a full-time job with a yearly salary of $90,000, thanks to the recent 11 percent raise the commissioners gave themselves. Last November, Mayfield told the Observer he puts in 40 to 60 hours a week as a commissioner. He practices law an additional five to 10 hours a week, he said.

Stimson decided to see just how and where Mayfield spends his time. He asked for copies of Mayfield's office calendars for the past four years and tried to determine whether Mayfield has met with any law clients in his road-and-bridge district office in Duncanville. None of the calendars Mayfield handed over mentions any legal work, but almost every weekly calendar has huge gaps of time left blank.

Stimson is certain the copies Mayfield gave him have been amended to remove any mention of his law-related appointments. Stimson may be right. Several years ago, the Observer requested copies of Mayfield's appointments calendar for the first six months of his term, which he was required to make public, according to a Texas Attorney General ruling. The calendars Mayfield gave the Observer showed he was practicing law--going to court and meeting with clients--between six and 10 hours a week. On the calendars that Mayfield gave Stimson for this same time period, that information is conspicuously absent.

 

"The calendars have been doctored, and it is obvious he is trying to hide his private law practice," Stimson claims. "Maybe he's spending more time on law than he says he is. Or maybe he's conducting his law practice out of his county office, which is what we've been told. That's one reason we were asking for the records. This makes you wonder even more."

Mayfield admits that the meetings and court appearances with law clients were removed from the calendars, because "these are personal things, and the DA's office said we could delete them," he says, referring to an opinion a former assistant DA rendered three and a half years ago. But Mayfield fails to mention that the DA's office deferred to the Texas Attorney General, who determined that Mayfield had to release the calendars with the names.

"I am not aware of that ruling," Mayfield told the Observer early this week.
Stimson claims that Mayfield abuses his office in other ways as well. For example, Stimson points to a campaign barbecue the commissioner held at his road-and-bridge district office on May 29, between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. The law does not prohibit campaign events on county property, but a candidate is supposed to pay fair market value for using it, which Mayfield did not, according to his latest campaign finance reports.

Even if Mayfield had paid, Stimson says, "I think it is absolutely wrong to use county property for campaign events."

Stimson also alleges that Mayfield's lax oversight of his staff's time sheets has allowed one staffer essentially to finance his campaign for public office at taxpayer expense. Staffers, for example, are allowed to sign their own time sheets, and they rarely have to account for comp time they claimed they've earned.

"As an accountant this drives me crazy, and as a taxpayer I'm astonished," Stimson says. "It's terrible business practice, and it's a terrible way to watch taxpayers' money. If you're not watching the nickels, you can't catch the dimes."

The worst offender is Jim Hamlin, Mayfield's top assistant, who has worked for the county for about three and a half years. Between January and July of last year, Hamlin used the equivalent of about five and a half weeks of comp time--a total of 181 hours--to campaign for county clerk. He also used some of this comp time to attend his boss' campaign barbecue as well as other campaign events.

Then, during the next three months, Hamlin managed to accrue more than a week's worth of comp time--45 hours, to be exact. What early-morning and after-hours work did Hamlin do to earn that comp time? Well, it's difficult to tell, because his time sheets and the office agenda rarely say.

Mayfield says he occasionally looks at the time sheets to make sure they're accurate. He says he verbally approves all comp time his staff accrues. He doesn't think Hamlin has accrued an excessive amount of comp time in just three and a half years of county work. "These jobs require them to do work outside their eight hours," he says.

But in the rare instances for which Hamlin does account for comp time on his time sheet, the numbers don't add up. For example, between January and June 1998, he claims to have accrued seven hours of comp time attending four Parkland hospital board meetings, which are held on the third Tuesday of every month. But a check of the Parkland board minutes on those dates show that he should have received only two hours of comp time. On May 19, for instance, Hamlin claimed he earned two hours of comp time attending a Parkland board meeting that ended at 5:07 p.m.--just seven minutes past Hamlin's eight-hour work day.

Hamlin, who is running unopposed for county clerk in the general election, beat Mary Kay West in the primary. A Dallas County election department supervisor, West took a two-month leave of absence from the county while campaigning. She financed her leave with comp and vacation time; however, West earned that comp time over a 24-year career with the county, where she logged more than her share of 12-hour days during elections.

The office of Mike Cantrell, Republican county commissioner for District 2, offers an interesting counterpoint to Mayfield's. Elected the same year as Mayfield, Cantrell is also a lawyer, but he gave up his practice. "It takes every bit of my time just to keep up with the demands of this job, and...I still don't have enough time to accomplish what I want to accomplish," Cantrell said in a recent interview with the Northside People newspaper.

 

Traci Enna, Commissioner Cantrell's administrative assistant--Jim Hamlin's counterpart--says that in her office, she and her colleagues accrue very little comp time, because the commissioner attends most of the after-hours functions. As for the time sheets in her office, the office superintendent signs them.

"It's hard to justify spending all these extra hours," Stimson says of Hamlin. "Face it, they don't do a heck of a lot down there."

Hamlin did involve himself in one interesting project during office hours. This summer, the Democratic and Republican parties forwarded their list of election judges to the Commissioners Court for approval. The party of each precinct's election judge is determined by which party's candidate won that precinct in the last gubernatorial election. When the commissioners approved the list in August, three of the precincts with Democratic judges had mysteriously been assigned Republican judges. All of the precincts just happened to fall in Mayfield's district.

The change might have gone unnoticed if not for the astute eye of Bill Howell, the Dallas Democratic Party election administrator, who was perusing the list for typos and caught the swapped judges. Hamlin, it turns out, was behind the swap. According to Bruce Sherbet, the Dallas County election administrator, Hamlin "had crunched the numbers" and told Sherbet's department it was wrong, and it believed him.

Howell proved that Hamlin's numbers were wrong, and now the election department is in the process of reinstating the Democratic judges.

"It was multiple layers of mistakes," Bruce Sherbet admits. "I take responsibility. Hamlin's numbers weren't right."

Perhaps it was an innocent mistake on Hamlin's part, but Dallas Democratic Party stalwarts doubt it. "It's like Thoreau said, 'If there's a trout in the milk, you can bet they were watering the milk,'" Howell says.

On Wednesday, October 7, at 8 a.m., Stimson attended the opening of a new Tom Thumb grocery store in Oak Cliff. Surprised to see both Mayfield and Hamlin there, Stimson says he questions what the event had to do with county business, much less why it required both of them to attend. The way the commissioner runs his office, Stimson says, it's difficult to know whether they were there as candidates or county employees.

"If this is the way Mayfield operates, it's scary as hell," Stimson says. "I don't know what the hell he does. All these chamber and Rotary Club breakfasts and luncheons and ribbon cuttings--it looks like a pretty cushy job to me.

"We have to change that," he adds. "There's an awful lot of things we need to change in that office.


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