Former Smith County judge to pay fine in Open Meetings Act violation

By Cody Lillich
Originally published Dec. 12, 2016

Former East Texas County judge Joel Baker entered a no contest plea deal Monday on one of the three charges brought against him.

Two of the other counts were dismissed per the deal. Baker must pay a $200 fine as a part of the agreement.

The trial for the former Smith County judge ended before it even began Monday in a Smith County courtroom.

The three charges stem from a now-suspended contract with American Traffic Solutions to deploy speed monitoring cameras in county school zones. According to the indictment, the grand jury found that Baker “did knowingly close or aid in closing a regular meeting of the Smith County Commissioners Court to the public.”

The three counts are for three separate dates of regular Commissioners Court Meetings; July 8, 2014, July 29, 2014, and August 12, 2014. These meetings are related to American Traffic Solutions (ATS), a company that Baker contracted with on behalf of Smith County for placement of the cameras in school zones in Smith County.  The agreement Monday acknowledges a closed meeting violation in one of the three meetings.

The cameras would record speeds and capture the license plate of the violator and automatically issue a fine. On July 8, 2014, the Commissioners Court agenda lists that ATS was to make a presentation on a public safety issue. ATS is not specifically named on the agendas for the two later dates.

Assistant Attorney General Shane Attaway said Monday the end of this case is proof of holding officials accountable for their open and closed meetings.

“It allows Smith County to move on,” Attaway said. “It holds public officials accountable for closing a meeting. A commissioners court or other city entities are supposed to conduct meetings in public, that’s the whole purpose of the Texas Open Meetings Act.”

Baker’s deal he took in December was not the first offered to him. One was offered to him in October, but he refused.

“Sometimes it may take a jury showing up to come to the courthouse for reality to set in,” Attaway said.

Joann Fleming of the group Grassroots America-We The People filed the initial complaint and said it was disappointing that the former county judge did not take the deal sooner.

“Sometimes people make delayed decisions and i think this is one that would have been better made earlier.” Fleming said. “We hope they have all learned a lesson and the public has learned that there are laws on the books that protect the interest of taxpayers and the public and those laws need to be enforced.”

In a statement following his indictment, Baker said the investigation against him “was not a mission to find the truth, rather a political witch hunt.”

Baker was the only member of the court charged. The deadline to prosecute any remaining member for the meetings mentioned has passed.

Following the indictment, Baker was suspended by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, a judicial ethics board where Baker used to be vice-chair.

Baker would later reach an agreement in September with the SCJC to voluntarily resign his position based on the open meetings investigation and a separate investigation that started following a KLTV report which revealed Baker sent sexually explicit messages and images to a woman while on state, county business. As a part of the agreement, Baker can never hold a judge’s role in the State of Texas.

In a statement sent to KLTV by Baker’s attorney, Joseph Murphy, he wrote,

Judge Baker’s decision was made to allow his family and himself to move on from this chapter in his life. He has always maintained that he never intentionally and knowingly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. The previous offer that was referred to in your story was not the agreement entered into this morning. The previous offer from the AG’s office required a plea of guilty and for Judge Baker to be placed on probation for over 12 months.

Much like Mr. Attaway’s quote suggested at times it takes a jury panel to be assembled for the prosecution to determine they have a case that is built on a house of cards. Judge Baker has not or will never admitted guilt in this accusation nor will he ever be convicted of this offense.

If the case would have gone to trial, Baker could have faced anywhere between one and six months in jail and/or a fine between $100-$500, if convicted.