Baker pleads no contest and avoids trial

Published on Monday, 12 December 2016 20:37 - Written by ROY MAYNARD and FAITH HARPER, news@tylerpaper.com

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Former Smith County Judge Joel Baker pleaded no contest to one count of violating the Texas Open Meetings Act, while two remaining counts were dismissed as part of a plea deal.

The case will not go to trial, and Baker will have to pay a fine of $200 and serve 30 days of deferred adjudication.

The plea deal was accepted Monday as jury selection for the case was ongoing in the courthouse.

The criminal case is now closed.

Baker was suspended without pay in June, pending the outcome of the investigation into Texas Open Meetings Act violations. He formally resigned from office, effective in November, and former Tyler city councilman and attorney Nathaniel Moran was appointed to fill the remainder of Baker’s term, which is up in 2018.

As part of the deal, Baker waived his right to appeal, said Shane Attaway, assistant attorney general for the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

“Smith County can move on,” Attaway said. “Judge Baker resigned and admitted to the offense. It lets other governmental officials know that if you’re going to be conducting meetings, they need to be made in public so they know what’s going on.”

Baker’s attorney Joe Murphy said Baker took the deal to allow his family and himself to move on.

Baker denies any wrongdoing, however.

“Under this plea offer, I will never be found (or) declared guilty of the frivolous charges made against me, and I will not suffer the effects of a conviction,” Baker said in a statement released by his attorney. “It was a difficult decision to make, but when you have friends who participated in the same actions, who accepted immunity to testify against you and who minimize their own responsibility, and when you have professionals, whose sole duty is to ensure the legality of your actions, turn against you to save face, when you and your family and true friends have suffered enough... it’s time to put it to rest. That’s what I did.”

Baker said the AG’s office had previously offered plea deals, but until Monday, they required him to plead guilty.

A spokeswoman for the State Bar of Texas said the plea should not affect Baker’s license to practice law, and Murphy added Baker plans to reopen his private law practice in East Texas.

“In order for a criminal conviction to qualify for compulsory discipline, it has to be considered a ‘serious crime that requires proof of knowledge or intent as an essential element or any crime involving the misapplication of money or other property held as a fiduciary,’” explained Claire Mock, public affairs counsel for the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for the Bar. “It doesn’t look like a violation of the Open Meetings Act qualifies.”

The executive director of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct said Baker is not eligible for back pay, dating back to his suspension without pay in June.

“I’m not aware of any authority that would allow him to recover back pay, especially given the plea and the absence of exoneration by a jury or judge following a trial on the merits,” said the agency’s executive director, Seana Willing.

CASE BACKGROUND

The meetings in which Baker is accused of violating the Open Meetings Act took place in 2014 and were about proposed unmanned speed cameras, which were discussed in executive session by members of the Smith County Commissioners Court.

Baker, who was elected county judge in 2006, was indicted on three misdemeanor offenses by a Smith County Grand Jury in June, following an investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

The indictment states that Baker “did knowingly close or aid in closing a regular meeting of the Smith County Commissioners Court to the public, and the closed meeting, relating to American Traffic Solutions (ATS), was not permitted under the Texas Government Code.”

It’s unclear what Baker’s plea deal means for the contract.

Three such meetings took place: July 8, 2014, with all commissioners - Jeff Warr, Terry Phillips, JoAnn Hampton and Cary Nix - in attendance; July 29, 2014, with all commissioners; and on Aug. 12, with all members present except Phillips.

The contract was approved in open session in that Aug. 12 meeting, with some caveats listed by Warr, who made the second. He stipulated the court’s legal counsel, the purchasing director and the county auditor sign off on the contract before it was finalized.

Baker later signed the contract, though it remains unclear which - if any - of those officials actually signed off on it.

No other commissioners were named in the indictment. However, three commissioners were subpoenaed by the prosecution in the trial.

JoAnn Fleming, executive director of Grassroots America-We the People, said she hopes the plea sends a message to other local officials. Ms. Fleming filed the original complaint, asking the AG to investigate the matter.

“My greatest hope is elected local officials in Smith County have learned that the Texas Open Meetings Act and the sunshine laws are there to protect the public’s interest,” she said. “Government is supposed to work for the people, not the other way around. Government officials should not pick what the public should know. Hopefully, we have raised a higher standard here.”

BAKER’S TENURE

Baker, who is a former Smith County assistant district attorney, won the county judge seat in a close race in 2006. When he took the bench, the Commissioners Court was fractured and contentious.

He made what he later acknowledged was a political misstep early on. He proposed a salary plan for the county that included a substantial pay raise for himself. His pay would have increased about 45 percent over a three-year span.

Public reaction was swift and loud; Baker later backed off from the plan, and said his decision was “a result of comments and actions by our voters.”

Later, the Texas Legislature passed a bill preventing county commissioners from voting themselves pay raises that take effect before their next election cycle.

The issue that most affected Baker’s tenure on the bench was the county jail, which was overcrowded and outdated.

The court called a bond election for a new jail for May 2006, just a few weeks after the March Republican primary. It was, in fact, two bond packages - an $83 million downtown jail, and a $75 million remote jail. Public opposition quickly emerged to both proposals, and the “No No Committee” was formed. Both proposals were defeated handily.

When commissioners went back to the drawing board, Baker declined to be part of a new, smaller jail committee formed by the court.

Without the county judge’s support, plans collapsed. By February 2007, the county was starting over again from scratch.

In September 2007, the county came forward with a new bond package: $125 million. It, too, was defeated. A year later, voters turned down a $59.6 million package, as well.

It wasn’t until 2011, when newly-elected Commissioner Jeff Warr helmed the effort, that a jail plan passed. It was much more modest - just $35 million - and focused on improving existing facilities, rather than building all new.

REVIVING DOWNTOWN

Yet Baker had a big hand in revitalizing parts of downtown Tyler. He was the driving force in revamping existing buildings and moving county offices out of the former Carlton Hotel (then called the Smith County Office Building) and into better quarters.

Some strategic purchases and pay-as-you-go refurbishments helped to form a downtown campus for county offices.

In 2015, Baker’s leadership on the issue earned the county the Heart of Tyler Brick Award.

COMMISSIONER REACTION

“I’m glad it’s over, and we don’t have to go through the trial. Nobody won in the situation, especially him and his family. It’s been a long process, but to get closure in this is (good) for the county and everyone involved. We can move on and start getting to work at the county. There’s not a cloud sitting over us anymore.”

- Cary Nix

“I’m glad it’s done and finalized. I hope it works out well for Joel that he can go on and put this behind him, like the county needs to, and keep moving forward. It was a long year-and-a-half or two years with the discussion and investigation, and I’m so glad it’s behind us.”

- Jeff Warr

“I’m super, super glad that he pleaded this thing out, no one had to testify and we didn’t have to go through the cost of the trial. I’m glad its over and hopefully we continue to move forward. With the new judge, I believe, we are all extremely happy that Judge (Nathaniel) Moran is really forthright and open about the way he conducts the meetings.”

- Terry Phillips

Commissioner JoAnn Hampton could not be reached for comment.