Three weeks ago a Dallas County grand jury looked at a felony “coercion” accusation against City Council member Scott Griggs and found it unworthy of prosecution. The term of art here is “no-billed.” Griggs was no-billed on an accusation that he had coerced a public official by threatening bodily harm. That means the grand jury did not believe the accusation.
Now after the better part of a month has passed since the no-bill, The Dallas Morning News is reviving the same claims the grand jury has already examined and rejected. The News’ new version of the story is based mainly on recently released documents and on an interview with the person Griggs is accused of threatening, Assistant City Secretary Billierae Johnson.
What the News neglects to tell readers in online and print stories, however, is that Johnson’s version of the threat is not supported by a single one of several police witnesses, including the one who was listening to the very conversation in which Johnson claims the threat took place.
The News also neglects to mention another extraordinary aspect of the story revealed in the documents — the aggressive steps taken by City Attorney Warren Ernst to see Griggs prosecuted.
This is about a shouting incident in the City Secretary’s Office on April 7 — a dispute over whether a certain notice had been properly posted. Griggs was accused of telling Assistant City Secretary Billierae Johnson he would “break her fucking fingers” if she illegally amended an item Griggs believed had already been posted improperly.
Documents released this week by the city reveal that Ernst himself was an unnamed witness in the police report who told investigators that when he arrived on the scene in the city secretary’s office: “(Another unnamed) Witness looked shaken, and complainant Johnson had a blank look on her face. The atmosphere in the office was tense and had the appearance of that of a bully and his victims.”
Ernst, who is supposed to be Griggs' lawyer as a council member, began immediately after the incident gathering up witness statements. He also gave pointed legal advice to Johnson, telling her in a memo in April 30, “Confirming oral advice I gave you earlier today, you and every other witness or potential witness in a criminal investigation or a criminal case have the absolute right to speak with any government or defense lawyer or investigator and the absolute right not to speak with any of them.”
Eventually Police Chief David Brown told Ernst to stop gathering evidence and leave the detective work to the cops. But Ernst was not easily deterred.
Johnson, the supposed victim, initially told Ernst and police investigators she had not been threatened by Griggs and didn’t want to make a statement claiming she had been. But Ernst told her that other witnesses were making statements. Apparently he forgot to tell her that all of them, like her, were saying they had heard no threat from Griggs.
At one point First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers sent an email to Ernst and City Manager A.C. Gonzalez saying, “(The Dallas Police Department) investigates only crimes and refers some serious crimes to the grand jury. These allegations, as described, do not sound like crimes, so it will appear weird for DPD to investigate them and weird to refer them to the grand jury.”
An assistant police chief also told Ernst that the charges were not worth any official action. But Ernst assembled a team of his top people, went over the assistant chief’s head to his boss, Chief David Brown. They told Brown they had researched the obscure statute under which they believed Griggs could be prosecuted and had come to what seems to a layman like a terribly counterintuitive conclusion: “… the statute did not require Assistant Secretary Johnson to feel threatened or participate in the pursuit of filing charges.”
It was enough to get Brown to send the case to the grand jury. Apparently it was not enough to get the grand jury to indict.
I asked Ernst about his various roles — witness, investigator and prosecutor — and whether any or all of those conflicted with his role as Griggs' attorney on city business. He replied: “My role as city attorney as provided in the city charter requires me to advise staff members and city departments as to legal matters. I advised DPD as to the elements of applicable law; at no time did I instruct or urge DPD as to how the department should proceed. I did not represent any of the witnesses.
“Also, as stated in the material, I did not witness the alleged threat that was the basis of the report by DPD to the DA’s office.”
In this week’s Morning News story based on an interview with Johnson, reporter Elizabeth Findell repeats Johnson’s earlier claim that she was on the phone with Lindsay Kramer, an executive assistant to Gonzalez, when Griggs was shouting at her. What Findell fails to tell readers in her account is that Kramer, like every other witness interviewed by police, told police she never heard Griggs utter the alleged finger-breaking threat.
Kramer did hear Griggs talking to Johnson in the background. Here is Kramer’s version of the conversation in an affidavit signed April 23 : “She asked for the documents which I told her were not yet complete. In the background I heard (council member) Griggs yell and ask, ‘Where are they on the website?’
“I responded that the items were being completed and were not online yet. At that time Billierae asked me to come to her office. In the background I heard (council member) Griggs yell that the posting wasn’t valid. ‘I want the documents.’ At that time I ended the call and went to her office.”
I asked Johnson yesterday if there might have been more than one phone call involved. She said no. “It was one phone call,” she said.
I asked her why Kramer had not heard the threat if she had heard the rest. Johnson said, “It was stated, and it should have been heard, but I can’t, that’s her statement, but that’s what happened.”
I asked Johnson about another matter revealed by the documents: Sana Syed, director of the city’s Public Information Office, said in a statement to police that Johnson had asked her to read “a lengthy statement on her encounter with council member Griggs. I read over it, made some edits and asked her how she was feeling.”
I asked Johnson what kind of statement Syed was talking about and whether it was a statement to police. Johnson said, “I have no idea what she is talking about. Let me clear on this. I have not had any dealings with any of those individuals, so I’m not sure what she’s, when it came to this matter, I’m not familiar [with] what she’s talking about at all.”
To sum up then, in attempting to revive the Griggs coercion by threat story, the Morning News forgot to tell you: 1) Not a single witness supports Johnson’s story of the threat, including one Johnson herself said overheard the conversation; 2) Ernst’s own top assistant and the assistant chief of police who first saw the accusation against Griggs told Ernst it was not a viable criminal accusation; 3) The head public relations person told police she had been editing people’s statements about the incident; and 4) Ernst only persuaded the police chief to send the charges to the grand jury by arguing that the person Griggs was alleged to have threatened didn’t have to agree that she had been threatened, didn’t even have to feel threatened and didn’t have to be a complainant in the case.
I will have more to tell you on this Monday and in my column in the print product next week. A felony conviction would have wrecked Griggs’ life, taken him away from his wife and child, cost him his law license, destroyed his good name and made him a minimally employable ex-con for life. The fact that someone wants to stir this pot again, even after the no-bill, makes it all the more important to know who it is and why. The fact that they’re able to do it in the news columns of the city’s only daily newspaper is just … depressing.
(Note: I saw early this morning, about 2 a.m., that Ernst had spoken with The Morning News a day after answering my questions and that The News is publishing a story today with his perspective on these same issues. I must point out that all of the documents referenced here and in today's story in The Morning News were in their hands earlier in the week when they wrote about Griggs without mentioning the non-corroborating witnesses or Ernst's aggressive role in seeking prosecution.)