It's bad enough for a rookie politician to face the Texas Rangers' corruption unit, but it hurts more when it's a friend who set you up. It's the kind of hurt that lingers long after the Rangers' investigation is over.
Flower Mound Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Itamar Gelbman found himself waking in the hell of Dante's Inferno when he realized he was being investigated for ethical violations. His accuser turned out to be a local business owner and personal pal, David Vaught.
Vaught was seeking incentives from the town to open the Crossfire Gun Range, and has claimed the 33-year-old Gelbman showed him confidential information about the deal. Flower Mound Town Council investigated and released about a 3,400 page investigation online in Dec. 2015. Then they passed a resolution directing the town manager and town attorney to forward their investigation results to the Denton County District Attorney's Office.
Now Gelbman faces the Texas Ranger's Public Integrity Unit, who is investigating the case. He's also facing calls for his resignation from residents.
But he's bound and determined not to face the fires alone. He’s planning to take his former friend with him, as well as Flower Mound Mayor Tom Hayden, who’s currently seeking re-election. Gelbman sent mass emails to local media outlets, accusing the mayor of ethics violations for breaking the town's ethics code when, as mayor, he supported several candidates, including the troubled Sheriff Will Travis.
"Hayden is a phony," Gelbman says. "He needs to stand up for what he is. It was a phony investigation, being accused for an ethics violation for a guy (Vaught) who's not the most ethical person in the world."
Born in New York, Gelbman grew up in Israel and served, he claims, with the Israeli special forces. He returned stateside approximately 11 years ago and finally settled in Flower Mound, a suburb about 30 miles northwest of Dallas. He met Vaught, a former Navy Gunner’s Mate, at a school event for both of their daughters in early 2015. But they didn’t solidify their friendship until March 2015 when, Gelbman says, he posted on Facebook that he was looking for business partner to open a gun range with him in Flower Mound.
“[Vaught] contacted me and said, ‘Hey, please don’t continue discussing it. Let’s meet, and I can tell you what and why,’” Gelbman told an investigator hired by Flower Mound Town Council in November 2015.
Vaught told Gelbman about a gun range that he planned to open, and they discussed becoming partners, although they never made it official. "He never wanted to give me equal voting rights," Gelbman says, "and I’m not going to give a lot of money without equal voting rights." The disagreement didn't ruin their blossoming friendship. They bonded over guns and conservative values, but their bond wouldn’t last.
Gelbman had big dreams when he won his council seat position in May 2015. He'd promised residents that he'd put them and their town of Flower Mound "above developers and their bank accounts." He also promised to put an end to the council's track record of unanimously approving developers' exemptions and waivers from town ordinances.
"As a resident it concerns me to see that every single development and ever single exemption was rubber stamped 'aye,'" he says.
A month after Gelbman's election, Vaught called his friend Mayor Hayden and told him that Gelbman had shown him confidential documents related to an incentive package being considered for Vaught's gun range, an package that would eventually produce $80,000. Gelbman didn’t know about the phone call to the mayor, and Vaught continued their friendship as if nothing had happened. "I didn’t tell him that I called Mr. Hayden," he says. "It doesn’t make sense to me to make enemies."
Vaught says that he felt uncomfortable when Gelbman told him that he wasn’t supposed to be showing him the confidential documents. He didn’t want to jeopardize his new business. To make matters worse, Gelbman had been trying to get more incentive money for his new friend’s gun range, according to the council’s investigative report.
Gelbman didn’t find out about Vaught’s betrayal until the council's investigation in late 2015. When he discovered it, he provided the investigator with a copy of Vaught’s text message seeking a prescription of steroids from Gelbman’s wife, who works as a veterinarian. Gelbman claims he was simply trying to establish Vaught’s lack of credibility. Council says he was simply trying to cause "reputable harm” to a resident’s reputation. He was doing both.
Vaught, who works out, denies that he was seeking steroids for himself. “But if everything he said is true, it’s still not a crime,” he says.
Flower Mound Assistant Police Chief Wendell Mitchell agrees. “Although someone might infer that Mr. Vaught was inquiring about the use of ‘Deca’ for his own medicinal use, his comments do not constitute a criminal offense,” he wrote in a Dec. 9, 2015 email.
Town Council finished their 3,487 page investigation and released it in early December 2015. Gelbman denied all allegations made by Vaught, claiming no “hard evidence.” The investigator hired by council also couldn’t establish what exactly transpired between the former friends since their stories didn’t match, and no hard evidence showed he had violated executive session.
But that didn’t stop Town Council from sending all documents related to Gelbman to the Denton County District Attorney’s Office which, in turn, forward it to the Texas Rangers to investigate.
After council uploaded the results of their investigation online, Gelbman posted the screenshot of Vaught’s text message to the Flower Mound Cares Facebook page. In a text message sent to Mayor Tom Hayden on Dec. 9, 2015, Vaught wrote, “Damnit Tom, I did not stick my neck out so it would get slit.”
This particularly vicious brand of local politics is not out of character for Flower Mound. It has a reputation for a Town Council rubbing elbows with too many developers, kicking people off planning and zoning commission, bullying residents in council meetings and making cheap shots against political foes on Facebook. Residents have called council a "circus" and "outtakes of a reality show."
Mayor Hayden blames the discord on Gelbman. But residents say he was sowing a little discord of his own when council agreed to investigate one another for violating the town's ethics code. One rookie council member, Brian Rountree, resigned. He had a heart attack due to stress, residents claim.
A suburb of 68,000 people, Flower Mound made 24/7 Wall St.'s list of 50 best cities to live. That may be true— if you don’t pay attention to local politics.
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