Smith County judge charged, booked in suspected Open Meetings Act violation

By Faith Harper and Roy Maynard
Tyler Morning Telegraph
Originally published June 18, 2016

County Judge Joel Baker was booked into the Smith County jail on Friday on a misdemeanor charge of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act.

Smith County Sheriff Larry Smith said Baker turned himself in after 5 p.m. and was released as of 6 p.m. Friday.

Baker is charged with three counts of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, a misdemeanor.

A warrant was issued Thursday from the Smith County Grand Jury, out of the 114th District Court, Smith said. Baker’s bond was set at the maximum of $2,000.

In a statement, Baker called the matter a “political witch hunt.”

“As the Attorney General and his supporters will agree, an indictment alone is no evidence of guilt or wrong doing.” he wrote. “I am not guilty of these charges. At no time did I, or any member of the court, knowingly violate the Texas Open Meetings Act. I maintain this (investigation) was not a mission to find the truth, rather a political witch-hunt. I look forward to producing the true facts to a jury. I am confident a jury will find these charges to be frivolous.”

If Baker is convicted of one or more of the charges, he would be removed from office. According to the Texas Association of Counties, a county judge can be removed for official misconduct.

“A judge or commissioner convicted for a violation of the Open Meetings Act is automatically removed from office,” according to the organization’s website.

The charges likely stem from an Attorney General investigation into Baker and the Commissioners Court after a complaint filed by Grassroots America – We the People on how the body handled a now-defunct contract to place unmanned speed cameras in county school zones.

The contract with Arizona-based company American Traffic Solutions was discussed in an executive session and approved by the court in August 2014.

Baker signed the contract in January 2015, and the matter became public months later in April, when a press release went out to local media. Commissioners said, at the time, they were unaware the contract had even been signed.

The contract remains valid but inactive.

In May 2015, Grassroots America filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office for a possible breach in the Texas Open Meetings act, stating the contract was not fully vetted before the public.

“To those who would trivialize these alleged violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, Grassroots America considers an official’s oath of office, respect for the rule of law and respect for the public trust to be very serious matters,” the watchdog group said in a statement Friday evening. “While nobody was robbed at gunpoint or physically assaulted in this case, we believe the public trust was violated and violated more than once. We believe when all of the facts are known in this case, it will be abundantly clear the citizens of Smith County deserved much better from their county government.”

Baker, an attorney himself, said the Court followed the advice of its legal counsel.

The court is represented by Assistant District Attorney Phillip Smith, who is appointed to his post by District Attorney Matt Bingham.

“I will prove my innocence and not allow a certain political faction to label me as a criminal for adhering to the advice of legal counsel, who is assigned to advise the Commissioners Court by the Smith County Criminal District Attorney, the county’s chief law enforcement officer,” Baker’s statement reads.

Bingham’s office recused itself from the Attorney General’s investigation, citing a conflict of interest, and TAC guidelines say the county cannot spend taxpayer money to represent Baker in the open meetings case.

As of Friday evening, no other members of the court had been charged.

Commissioners have confirmed they were interviewed by the FBI as part of a separate investigation into the matter, but the status of that investigation is unclear.

Grassroots America has filed a separate petition to have Baker removed from office, citing the American Traffic Solution deal and unrelated allegations that Baker was sending explicit photos to a woman other than his wife wile on county time.

That case is pending, although a visiting judge and an attorney pro tem have been appointed to hear the case.