WilCo Constable Lawsuit: Crying wolf ... and mayhem

Courthouse dogs bark that Constable Gary Griffin may have broken law by including mental-health-call-related 911 logs as evidence in his civil case against county

Williamson County's courthouse dogs are at it again. This time, they're barking a threat that Precinct 1 Constable Gary Griffin may have broken the law by including mental-health-call-related 911 logs as evidence in his civil case against the county, an action County Attorney Jana Duty is alleging violates privacy laws and the Texas Public Information Act.

At issue are 911 logs Griffin and his attorneys, former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire and former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox, offered as evidence that there was no dire dearth of service on Oct. 19, 2005, the day that Griffin redeployed his deputies. Griffin had directed his officers on that one day to concentrate on the office's core duties – serving warrants and subpoenas – and to cover mental-health calls only as backup for the Williamson Co. Sheriff's Office. According to Griffin's submitted documentation, not one call went unanswered.

The 911 logs now in question record mental-health calls answered by WCSO deputies in 2004 and 2005 and illustrate the fact that the WCSO was entirely capable of serving as primary responders on such calls. In short, the records suggest that the county did not really need Griffin's help handling mental-health calls. Moreover, according to the sworn deposition of Commissioner Lisa Birkman, the county didn't want Griffin's assistance.

Nevertheless, the county's team of official Chicken Littles – Duty and the county commissioners – called an "emergency" court session on the day of the redeployment, to mitigate the "crisis" Griffin had supposedly created. Griffin's decision to redeploy his deputies put every "man, woman, and child" in the county in jeopardy, commissioners warned in their rushed budget order, as well as in subsequent pleadings. The manufactured crisis was then used by commissioners to justify an immediate order to slash Griffin's FY '05 budget by 70% – funds the court had approved two months earlier. That move sparked Griffin to file suit against the county, arguing that the court illegally tampered with the budget of an independently elected official midyear, simply because commissioners disagreed with his budget priorities. The 911 logs are important to Griffin's case because they show that the county faked a crisis in order to cut the constable's budget, says Aleshire.

While a decision on the legality of the commissioners' budget-slashing action is pending before the 3rd Court of Appeals, the county has been woofing that the 911 logs were placed into evidence improperly, even illegally, because they were unredacted and thus contained the names of those who'd made mental-health-related calls to police. In fact, Duty told a Williamson County Sun reporter that if the records were improperly disclosed, Griffin (and presumably his attorneys) could be facing a criminal misdemeanor charge of "official misconduct," which she said could "result in [Griffin's] removal from office." And it appears that District Attorney John Bradley has also entered the fray, supporting Duty's request for Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott's office to investigate the alleged privacy violation. On Nov. 3, the county also filed a motion to seal the records, accusing Griffin of breaking the law outright. The late-breaking, accusatory motion took Aleshire by surprise, he said, because the records in question have been part of Griffin's legal filings since July. "Why did the county's team of four lawyers wait four months" to raise the issue? Aleshire demanded. "Duty should read attorney disciplinary rules that prohibit a lawyer from presenting, participating in, or threatening criminal charges to gain an advantage in a civil matter."

Apparently Williamson Co. officials consider the timing irrelevant, and moreover, their rhetoric in the bureaucratic turf-battle is reaching new extremes. Asked about the dispute by the Chronicle, Assistant County Attorney Dale Rye grimly compared the argument over court documents to the currently most notorious local homicides. "It's like the capital charges against Michael Moore," Rye declared. "We can't ignore a criminal violation. Someone needs to look into it." (Moore is the already convicted and incarcerated murderer most recently accused of the murder of still-missing 19-year-old Rachel Cooke.)

If Griffin's alleged infraction is, indeed, akin to serial homicide, why did the county wait this long to act? Incredibly, Rye says, it didn't come up sooner because "nobody" – that is, nobody on the county's crack legal team – bothered to read through all of the contents of Griffin's civil suit until recently. "It just dawned on us that there could be a problem," Rye said. Aleshire says the county's newfound fury signifies nothing: "These 911 call notes are not confidential records of communication between a 'patient' and a 'professional,'" as defined under the law, he wrote, responding to the county's motion. "911 call information is routinely released in Williamson County to the news media and others." In fact, Aleshire notes, the AG's office has "consistently" ruled that dispatch records are, indeed, public information. "They are doing this because Gary dared to stand up to the Courthouse Gang," Aleshire told the Chronicle.

Aleshire is not known to be a shrinking violet, and he blasted the charges as an attempt at intimidation. "The county and district attorney are attacking me for doing my job as an attorney," he thundered. "I am not afraid. I am not cowered. Their sorry tactics make me indignant and just that much more determined to stand up strongly for my client." Mattox chimed in, calling the county's recent ploy "pure political harassment" and "abuse of power."

AG spokesman Tom Kelley says the agency will review the records and make recommendations to county officials, but he declined to comment on whether Griffin might face a charge of official misconduct. "We are looking into an alleged violation of the Texas Open Records Act, period," he said. On Dec. 1, at the request of lawyers for Griffin and for the county, Williamson Co. District Judge James Clawson sealed the records in question; redacted copies of the call logs have been placed in the portion of the file available to the public.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Williamson County, Gary Griffin, 911 logs, Jana Duty, Texas Public Information Act, Bill Aleshire, Jim Mattox, Joseph Clawson

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