Longform

In the Collin County courthouse, due process has a funny way of expressing itself: payback, personal vendettas and overzealous prosecutions.

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In July, six women, several of whom are old enough to be grandmothers, were arrested and charged with engaging in organized crime. The term normally associated with thick-necked guys with nicknames like Fat Tony or Jimmy the Weasel was being applied to timekeeping matters involving the incoming Collin County district clerk and five other clerk's office supervisors.

Since the early 1990s, after Hannah Kunkle was elected district clerk, employees were given time off through a system called the "blue book," according to an affidavit filed by a Texas Ranger investigating the case. This was an informal system of awarding days off, beyond regular vacations and holidays. (The most recent blue book was actually a red spiral notebook, the investigation found.)

Hourly employees, whose time was monitored by swipe-card readers at the doors, were required to leave their cards behind so supervisors could clock them in and make certain that those extra days off were paid. An office memo had been sent laying out the procedure.

Last March, five unnamed employees blew the whistle on the system and the way it had allegedly become enmeshed with Chief Deputy District Clerk Patricia Crigger's campaign to succeed Kunkle, who was retiring. They told state investigators that clerk-employees were encouraged to campaign for Crigger, whom Kunkle endorsed as her successor and who easily won the primary that month, and that employees had been given "blue book time" off in return for their work on Crigger's behalf.

In addition, district clerk employees were accused of using county computers and office time to work on campaign materials. Crigger allegedly used her computer during work hours to create her campaign "bio" and compose and transmit an endorsement letter purportedly written by Kunkle, according to the Ranger's affidavit.

"I am the campaign queen around here and Patricia has named my truck the "Campaignmobile," wrote defendant Sherry Bell, who managed the civil family section, in an e-mail quoted in the affidavit. "I have her signs as well as the signs for the man that is running for District Attorney who happens to be the husband of the Judge that I have started going to church with." That would be the Willis couple.

In thick filings with headings such as "Notice of Overt Acts of the Combination" and a dump of 1,300 pages of records by Roach's assistants, there's evidence that clerks were doing election work on taxpayer time.

It was politics, however, that suddenly had people blowing the whistle on what appears to have been a customary policy in the clerk's office to juggle records to account for time off, Crigger's lawyer, Bob Hinton, says. And that assertion leads straight to DA Roach.

"This is politics at its Collin County worst," Hinton says. "It's the way things happened there. You have the king and you have the serfs."

Some of the whistleblowers are clerks permanently assigned to the court of Judge John Roach Jr., the son of the DA who also was up for re-election in 2010, Hinton says. The judge wanted Crigger's people to hold up his campaign signs at polling sites along with Crigger's. They didn't, contends Hinton, and all of a sudden Roach's clerks were lined up to spill the beans on the "blue book" system and how it was employed to help Crigger's campaign.

The elder Roach refuses to identify the whistleblowers but confirmed he and his son played a role in bringing the case forward.

"There are only a few people who you can trust at the courthouse. One of those persons was me and the other was my son, Judge Roach. Whoever these whistleblowers are, they first reported it to him, he reported it to me and I reported it to the Texas Rangers."

In the strongest terms, though, both Roach and his son say Hinton's scenario of political payback is wrong.

"That is just not true," Judge John Roach Jr. says of Hinton's account. "I never discussed my campaign with Ms. Crigger or her staff nor did I ever ask her people to campaign for me."

He says a single employee, not assigned to his court, came forward with allegations. "I was alerted to the possibility a crime was being committed to the detriment of the taxpayers of Collin County. I had no choice but to report it," he maintains, adding that he reported it to his father, the DA. "They could have found nothing. They found a lot and that led to indictments."

Hinton contends that there was nothing illegal about the way time off was awarded and that a similar system had been used in the elder Roach's office.

Indeed, in an affidavit filed in the case last October, prosecutors revealed that workers in the district attorney's office had a similar system of awarding extra time off. It said the DA office's timekeeper "believes that 'everyone' in the county was altering employees' time records, including persons in the Collin County Human Resources Department."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec