Grand jury investigates secrecy allegations in Irving ISD

By Avi Selk
The Dallas Morning News
Originally published Nov. 1, 2013

During a bitter power struggle in the spring, four Irving ISD school board members accused their colleague Steven Jones of breaking state laws and district policies. They asked the state to investigate him.

But the state declined, and then the tables turned. A grand jury is now investigating the four trustees after Jones complained that their request was illegal.

“He’s trying to destroy us over false accusations,” former board President Ronda Huffstetler said after she learned last week of the investigation, which could lead to a criminal trial if the grand jury issues an indictment.

Weeks before May’s election swept Jones’ opponents out of power, Huffstetler and three other trustees voted to pass a resolution publicly condemning him.

Huffstetler, Jerry Christian, Gwen Craig and Valerie Jones cited allegations that Steven Jones intimidated employees and tried to undermine the superintendent. Jones denied he did anything wrong and was not punished, though the district later hired an investigator who corroborated all the charges.

The four trustees followed up on the condemnation vote by signing a letter to the Texas education commissioner. On school board letterhead, they asked the state to send officials to investigate Steven Jones and monitor the district — a request that the state declined.

Meanwhile, Steven Jones wrote his own letter.

“I believe certain members of the Irving Independent School District Board of Trustees have violated the Texas Open Meetings Act,” he wrote to District Attorney Craig Watkins on April 4.

Open meetings laws forbid trustees from taking official actions in secret. Steven Jones said his opponents broke those laws when they signed the letter without a vote and after discussing it on the phone with Huffstetler.

Huffstetler scoffed at the accusation and called the investigation a waste of tax dollars. She had her personal lawyer draft the letter, she said, and phoned trustees merely to let them know it was at district headquarters, where they went to sign it.

“I did not poll them or ask them if they were going to sign it,” Huffstetler said last week. “As president, I had the right to call.”

For months, it looked like Steven Jones’ complaint would go nowhere. The district attorney’s office referred him to another agency, which in turn referred him back to the district attorney.

But Huffstetler said Steven Jones refiled his complaint in September. And last week, the district attorney’s public integrity office phoned her and told her to expect questions.

A spokeswoman for the Dallas County district attorney said the office found the complaint substantial enough to refer it to a grand jury, which is now investigating.

“You don’t want to tie up your judicial system with B.S.,” said spokeswoman Debbie Denmon. “There has to be something there to warrant a grand jury listening to prosecutors to see if it’s enough to go to trial.”

The grand jury can either drop the case or put the trustees on trial for open meetings violations — misdemeanors punishable by fines or up to six months in jail.

Huffstetler and Christian, who both retired from the school board in May, did not sound worried.

“I’m positive we didn’t do anything wrong,” Christian said. “All they’re doing is trying to distract attention from themselves.”

However, Christian also said he thought the resolution to condemn Jones “called for the letter to be written.” The resolution did not mention a letter, though Huffstetler announced she would send one before the vote.

Valerie Jones did not comment on the investigation except to say it was “regrettable.”

Craig, who lost re-election in May, could not be reached for comment. Neither could Steven Jones.

This is the second time the trustees have been investigated over open meetings laws.

Mike Howard, an Irving political writer best known by his pen name “Mark Holbrook,” complained in 2011 that the superintendent secretly polled trustees about a supermarket zoning case.

Irving police investigated the complaint and found that the superintendent at the time, Dana Bedden, phoned several trustees to arrange a public meeting about the supermarket.

But the investigator found that Bedden never sought trustees’ opinions during the phone calls and cleared them of wrongdoing.

Huffstetler predicted the current investigation would end the same way.

“I already called the DA and told him to call me any day,” she said. “It’s no big deal.”