Late last month, Robert Worthen, Judge Sterling Lacy’s appointee to the Financial Advisory Committee, believed he had been informed of a crime. Some committee members – and apparently some Commissioners – think he should have gotten permission to report it. Here is the sequence of events, from emails obtained after a FOIA request:
From: Mike Sandefur To: Robert Worthen Friday, June 27, 2014, 5:07 PM
Robert, I have been advised that you have contacted the DA's office, the sheriff, and possibly the Texas Rangers today regarding your committee assignment.
Please forward to me as soon as possible a written account of your actions.
From: Mike Sandefur To: [committee members, county officials, various members of the media] Friday, June 27, 2014, 5:14 PM [forwarded to various public and private individuals a few minutes later] Subject: Serious Incident Today
Dear Financial Advisory Committee and Commissioners Court Members (by BCC),
This email is to alert you to a serious incident that happened today, and express my regrets on behalf of the Financial Advisory Committee.
One of our committee members contacted the District Attorney's office, the Sheriff's Office, and perhaps the Texas Rangers alleging that a crime had been committed in connection with difficulties encountered in his committee assignment. I have been told he has also threatened a lawsuit.
I became aware of these actions this morning. In addition to discussing it with the Treasurer and County Auditor, I have confirmed the incident with Carol Dalby and the DA's office, and with Sheriff Prince directly. I have not yet attempted to contact the Texas Rangers.
Before lunch I went to the committee member's office but he was not in. I have emailed him to request that he provide a written recap of his allegations and the actions he took independent of the Financial Advisory Committee.
The Treasurer and the County Auditor have been requested to submit a written report to me about the circumstances.
It is important for the Financial Advisory Committee to work with the Commissioners Court to provide facts and recommendations. As you know, our committee has agreed to work under the philosophy and guidelines suggested by the Les Minor editorial in the Texarkana Gazette.
It does not appear to me that these unilateral actions by one committee member fall within these guidelines. Whether the allegations in this case are true or false, the appropriate mechanism would be to alert other committee members, and then communicate the issues to the Commissioners Court through proper channels., in writing, and with appropriate documentation.
My greatest concern is the rogue actions of a single member have jeopardized the working relationship of trust and competence within our committee, and with the public, elected officials, and county staff. We have more work to do, and do not need setbacks.
I want to sleep on this matter over the weekend, and then I will have some recommendations for the members of the Financial Advisory Committee to consider on how best to move forward.
I would also like to be put on the Commissioners Court agenda on the next meeting to give a full explanation of this incident to the Commissioners Court members, and to the public.
From: Robert Worthen To: [committee members, county officials, various members of the media] Friday, June 27, 2014, 10:53 PM
On Wednesday morning I gave a written request to the Treasurer for reconciled bank accounts for the last ten years. I have a copy of the request at my store which I can give you Monday. At that time, I understood her to say she only had three years of bank statements because Bryce had shredded all of the other statements.
So, I was able to get a meeting with Bryce Feasel (sorry if the spelling is not correct) late Thursday afternoon and he said that he did shred some old documents but only those documents allowed by law and by memory thought the law was to keep four years back. So Friday morning I called Sheriff Prince and told him that I suspected there were some bank statements that might have been destroyed illegally and basically asked him what to do. He told me that should talk to the District Attorney's office and find out. I called the office and Carol Dalby called me back and told me she didn't know what the law was on keeping those documents were and suggested I contact the Sheriff again and possibly the Attorney Generals office to find out what the law actually said. I forget whether I called the Attorney Generals office next or Sheriff Prince but he told me he would rather I would call Jay Wommack who is the Texas Ranger assigned to Bowie County and he gave me his phone number. At lunch time Mr. Wommack called me back and told me that he wouldn't get involved unless Sheriff Prince asked him to get involved so I then called Sheriff Prince back and after some discussion he suggested that he would call the Treasurer and get some clarification. About an hour after that, he called me back and said that I should call the Treasurer and talk to her directly so I did so immediately. At that time she said that I misunderstood her and that she had told me that she was only required by law to keep the current year and the three years previous years, not that she only had three years of bank statements. Also, at that time we talked about the request for bank statements and she admitted misreading part of my request. So, we reached and acceptable agreement between the two of us and everything seemed to be fine. To the best of my recollection, that is what happened.
Now, I'd like to make a few comments of my own.
1. If anyone said that made a lawsuit threat, they are lying. I absolutely did no such thing.
2. I did not ask for this job and did not want this job. But, I agreed to help Judge Lacy out by accepting this job. My father taught me that if you do a job, no matter what it is, do it the best you can. That is what I am trying to do it to the best of my ability. Since I have a business to run and can't devout even half of my time to this job, I have a very good retired accountant friend who has agreed to help me go through and understand these things better and a brother who was at one time the President of the Louisiana CPA association and Judge Lacy has a son who is a CPA that is willing to help as well. I was assured by Judge Lacy and you that we would have full access to all county departments and documents to research and help come up with real solutions for our County's financial problems. I believe that history is extremely important in learning what was done right or wrong in the past so we can repeat the success but also avoid the failures of the past. My goal is to come up with the best solutions and options for the Commissioners to use to get Bowie County where it needs to be financially and I believe I can help do that. I am the probably only member of the committee with a real blue-collar background and to that point, I bring a different perspective than anyone else on the committee to the table. I have been working day and night to understand the county's financial statements and problems. My wife will attest to that.
Mike, beside me, you were the one that also called for full access by us for our work, citing Les Minor's article as a guide. But if the commissioners would like me to step down, I'll be more than happy to do so. Otherwise, I'd appreciate you getting the other side of the story before making a "rogue" statement.
From: Mike Sandefur To: [committee members, various members of the media] Monday, June 30, 4:07 PM Subject: Statement re: Serious Incident
I have been contacted by reporters from the Gazette and the Tribune to comment. This is my statement.
Our committee is working hard to help Bowie County navigate its financial troubles. We were not asked to investigate wrongdoing. It is not appropriate for a member to attempt crime scene investigation under guise of our committee work. On behalf of the committee, I am embarrassed by these events. We cannot be effective and obtain the cooperation we need if we proceed with the wrong mindset, assume the worst of officials, or bring politics into it. Our credibility is important to the whole community.
I have requested to be put on the next Commissioners Court agenda to obtain further guidance in this matter. Until then, I have visited with the other committee members, and have decided to temporarily reassign all of Mr. Worthen's duties to other members until that time.
Monday in Bowie County Commissioners Court, Judge Lacy introduced an agenda item asking for the Court to set rules guiding the functions of the Financial Advisory Committee, including the authority of the chairman to exclude committee members at his discretion.
During discussion, Robert Worthen pointed out that it was committee chairman Sandefur who alerted the media – including an apparent misstatement about a lawsuit – before getting the facts from him. Worthen also pointed out that every organization he contacted was at the direction of a previous contact. (Sandefur’s email could have been construed to imply that Worthen had contacted several organizations simply to report an alleged crime.)
Sandefur reiterated his position that the committee needs the trust of county officials to do their job, and accused Worthen of jeopardizing that by showing up to meetings with a tape recorder, and by going to Sheriff Prince instead of the committee when he believed he had heard of illicit activity.
Although it seems that this incident could have been avoided by bringing his news to the committee and getting clarification from the Treasurer, it is also obvious that the publicity given to this incident – and resultant “embarrassment” – could have been avoided, had Sandefur followed the same procedure. Instead, Sandefur’s initial email to the committee members, county officials, various members of the media, and various public and private individuals was published on Facebook at 7:19 the next morning.
It was pointed out that the information any member of the Financial Advisory Committee receives is no different than that to which any citizen has a right, but Sandefur and fellow committee member Joe Dike maintained the necessity of keeping information internal to the committee until they decide to release it.
I was informed today that the County Treasurer was told on behalf of the committee not to give Worthen the statements he requested, which would have been a direct violation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but that she subsequently delivered the requested records to him.
The over-arching question (and Judge Lacy’s agenda item), however, was whether Sandefur should have the authority to exclude committee members at his discretion, without receiving permission from Commissioners Court.
Commissioner Sammy Stone said he “very much had a problem” with the Court setting guidelines for the committee, and said that they should be free to work out their differences, and try to get along, much like the Commissioners Court tries to.
It’s worth pointing out that there are well-defined rules (laws) for almost every aspect of the Court’s interaction, while there are none for the Committee, save what they decide for themselves by majority vote.
Judge Lacy made a motion that “the chairman of the Financial Advisory Committee may not exclude any Bowie County Commissioners Court appointed member from equal treatment of all other members of the committee without receiving permission from the Court,” and Commissioner Mike Carter seconded it. Commissioners Stone, Whitten, and Blackburn voted “no,” and the motion was defeated.