Buying Judicial Influence?
Judges are rightfully held to high ethical standards. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct frequently publicly or privately sanctions Texas county judges for commenting on the social media pages of candidates for public office. Such comments show favoritism or political leanings, the reasoning goes.
So when two Tarrant County judges, Republicans Josh Burgess and Susan McCoy, ruled favorably for the plaintiff of an ongoing lawsuit against Carroll school district, most news outlets saw nothing untoward about the decision. The lawsuit alleges that school board members broke Texas Open Meetings Act laws when discussing the Cultural Competence Action Plan (CCAP), the school district’s proposed diversity and inclusion roadmap. School board members Bob Todd Carlton and Michelle Moore allegedly texted each other about the plan. Open meetings laws here and across the country demand public settings for discussions about official matters.
In November, Burgess signed a temporary restraining order that effectively bars the school board from discussing race-related matters. The school district is appealing that decision. The following month, McCoy signed an order that forced the school district to release documents and communications related to CCAP.
Both judges have ties to a close-knit group of Republican donors who are bankrolling Southlake Families, the political action committee that is underwriting the civil suit. PAC financial disclosures show multiple payments made to the two law firms behind the lawsuit. The PAC’s founder, Tim O’Hare, is a former Tarrant Republican chair and current candidate for county judge.
Playing politics appears to be a trend in Southlake, the mostly white, largely affluent suburb in northeast Tarrant County. The April indictments of Carlton and Moore for allegedly violating the Texas Open Meetings Act (“ Conservative Cronyism,” Aug 25) were sought by a district attorney’s office that has historically ignored similar complaints.
The ongoing criminal charges opened a second front against an embattled school board that has been targeted by white, wealthy, conservative parents who buy into debunked conspiracies about Critical Race Theory, the academic framework that, somewhat ironically, seeks to explain the role that white supremacy plays in cities like Southlake. Lawsuits are costly. The Weekly has requested information about the legal fees that the school district has incurred as the result of the ongoing litigation but has not heard back.
The Weekly’s investigation into Southlake cronyism recently turned to the ongoing civil suit that is supported and financed by powerful and well-connected families who have a long history of generously donating to DA Sharen Wilson and the very judges who are now deciding the fate of diversity training in Southlake.
“Keep Our Republican Judges,” read an October 2020 Facebook fundraiser event page. Red scribbles under “Republican” emphasized the operative word. The Southlake fundraiser, held at the home of former Southlake mayor and prominent Fort Worth lawyer Andy Wambsganss, a known supporter of the Southlake PAC, benefited several Republican judges, including Burgess and McCoy, according to the Facebook event page.
Texas judges are chosen through partisan elections. Winning elections requires campaign funds, meaning there is nothing illegal or explicitly unethical about judges attending partisan fundraisers. The annual fundraisers held by the Wambsganss family differ from typical judicial fundraisers in Tarrant County, said one former Southlake elected official and lawyer who asked not to be named to protect his privacy.
“Lawyers give money to judges, and lawyers who hold fundraisers for judges and invite people who aren’t lawyers, those are superstar supporters,” the confidential source told us. “Southlake has consistently had fundraisers for Tarrant County judges, Tarrant County elected officials, and anyone who is a Republican. These parties at the Wambsganss’ home are primarily for judges because Wambsganss is a lawyer. He wants all these [county] judges to know that he is raising money for them. He and his wife perceive themselves as being in the power-and-money game.”
The Southlake Families PAC, according to campaign finance report disclosures that we reviewed in full, is supported by donors who attended the 2020 Southlake event that raised funds for Burgess, McCoy, and several other conservative judges. Documents from the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) show that Southlake Families PAC has been active for at least a decade. A 2012 TEC document shows that the PAC was fined $1,300 for violating state disclosure laws by mailing flyers that urged Southlake voters to oppose a 2011 city proposal to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages in Southlake, the document read. Terry Orr is listed as the treasurer of the PAC at that time.
Among the 33 Southlake fundraiser guests or couples who paid $1,000 or more for their host-level tickets last year were Paul Spain, Darrin Winn, and Southlake Families PAC founder O’Hare. Southlake Families’ fundraising disclosures show that Winn contributed $10,000 to the PAC on March 31, 2021, while Spain donated $500 around the same time. Andy Wambsganss’ wife, Leigh Wambsganss, loaned the PAC $258.80 in May.
“If you were VIP,” the source said, “you gave more [than the hosts], and I’m sure once you got there, they asked for more.”
The timing of the October fundraiser that was followed by political victories for the Southlake Families PAC the following November and December raises questions about the influence of outside money on Tarrant County’s court system. The American Bar Association, which sets rules and standards for practicing lawyers and judges, states that a judge should disqualify himself or herself if the judge has a “personal bias or prejudice concerning a party or a party’s lawyer or personal knowledge of facts that are in dispute in the proceeding.”
McCoy’s December order that forced the school district to release documents and communications related to the civil suit may well be tied to the April indictment of the two school board members.
The PAC’s donations and influence recently placed Hannah Smith, a self-described “religious freedom lawyer,” on Carroll’s school board. Southlake Families’ disclosures list Smith’s campaign as a beneficiary of PAC funds. Before assuming her current elected position, Smith made a $200 contribution to Southlake Families PAC and, during her 2020 school board campaign, posted a message on Facebook which directly ties her to the malicious civil litigation. A screenshot that was shared with the Weekly shows Smith tagging Kristin Garcia, the lawsuit’s plaintiff.
“Today, the judge hears argument in several motions in the Garcia litigation,” Smith wrote. “Please cover them in prayer! Our legal team could use YOUR prayers too!”
More disturbing than the invocation of God into petty dealings on the part of a powerful group of affluent white parents is the fact that Smith, through her statement, connects herself to the very suit that has damaged the school district she now represents. By describing the lawsuit plaintiff as “our legal team,” Carroll school board member Smith may have implicated herself in an egregious conflict of interest.
The Weekly requested copies of ethics disclosures from Carroll school district which would reveal whether Smith disclosed her connections to Southlake Families.
“We do not have any conflict-of-interest documents by Ms. Smith,” a school district spokesperson responded.
Southlake didn’t used to be politically divisive, the confidential source said. The bipartisan nature of local politics changed following the rise of the Tea Party, the conservative grassroots movement that mobilized in reaction to perceived threats from President Barack Obama’s administration.
“Northwest Tarrant Tea Party’s inaugural event was held at Southlake Town Square,” the source told us. “I walked down there to see it. That was when things became divisive.”
The Wambsganss’ annual events are easily one of the more lucrative fundraisers for Republican judges in Tarrant County, the former Southlake public office holder added.
“It’s hard to raise money as a district judge,” the source continued, referring to the importance of the Southlake fundraiser that had ties to backers of the Southlake Families lawsuit. “When you attend an event that gives you thousands of dollars, you remember that. Most humans would know who paid them money.”
This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not necessarily the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at firstname.lastname@example.org. Submissions will be edited for factuality and clarity.