Attorney general to investigate Smith County Commissioners Court on open meetings

By Faith Harper
Tyler Morning Telegraph
Originally published June 26, 2015

The Texas Attorney General’s Office will investigate whether the Smith County Commissioners Court violated the Texas Open Meetings Act while working to place unmanned speed cameras in school zones.

The investigation stems from a complaint filed in the Smith County District Attorney’s Office by JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America — We the People.

The six-page complaint, dated May 12, cites nine concerns about the contract with American Traffic Solutions for the cameras and how informed the public was on the contract negotiations. Texas Open Meetings Act violations are classified as misdemeanor charges.

Commissioners voted to implement the controversial program in August after discussing the topic in closed session. County Judge Joel Baker signed the final contract with the Arizona-based company in January.

Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham recused his office from the investigation of the complaint, citing client-attorney privilege because Assistant District Attorney Phillip Smith serves as the Commissioners Court’s attorney and advises commissioners on legal matters. Bingham said Smith’s client-attorney privilege extends to the entire DA’s office.

Bingham requested the AG office look into the matter — something he said is a rarity.

Bingham has only referred a few cases to the AG over his 20-year career in Smith county but said he did so this time at the request of Ms. Fleming and to ensure there was no appearance of impropriety.

If the AG had declined to investigate, Bingham would have asked an attorney from another county.

“I won’t do it (request the AG’s assistance) on every case,” he said. “It’s not fair to them (and) … it’s not something we typically do. If we can find a lawyer that is fair and impartial, I will generally ask them to do it first.”

Bingham said he emailed the AG’s office on Wednesday to check on the status of his request for investigation and was told the AG took the case on.

“At this point it’s just an investigation,” he said, adding none of the commissioners have been charged with a crime.

If wrongdoing is found, the AG’s office also would prosecute the case, he said.

Ms. Fleming said she also has been contacted by the AG’s office for evidence to evaluate in the investigation.

“The open meetings act is designated to make sure elected officials don’t have the authority to decide what the people should know about their government and when they should know it,” she said. “There are very few exclusions which elected officials may protect business from the people. Those definitions should never be elastic, and they shouldn’t be stretched beyond the intent and spirit of the law.”

County Judge Joel Baker declined to comment on the status of the investigation.