The Long, Expensive Road To Montgomery County’s Commissioners Court Scandal

Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, County Commissioners Charlie Riley and Jim Clark, and a political consultant married to the county treasurer all face criminal charges for allegedly holding secret meetings on last year’s $280 million road bond referendum.

By Andrew Schneider July 1, 2016 9:36 am| , ,

From Houston Public Media

Montgomery County wasn’t designed to handle today’s traffic. The rapid growth of the county is putting thousands more cars and trucks on the rural and suburban roads every year. And the congestion is only expected to get worse.

So last August, Montgomery County Commissioners Court met to take citizens’ comments on a $280 million road bond. Ken Vaughn, a speaker from County Precinct 2, agreed with the need for the building program but not with how the commissioners proposed to pay for it.

“We need to stop acting like Congress and burdening our children with our debt,” Vaughn said. “Our operations and maintenance should come out of our yearly budget. Whatever we need to do to do that, we need to pay that out of our yearly budget. We should never, ever again take up bonds to pay for maintenance.”

County voters had defeated a road bond for $350 million the previous May. So when the court voted to put the smaller bond on the November ballot, and voters approved it, County Judge Craig Doyal breathed a sigh of relief. Houston Public Media spoke with Doyal this past February.

“There’s just congestion out there because of growth that we were not able to address without those dollars. And this will give us an opportunity to start,” Doyal said.

The problem was that prior to that August session, Judge Doyal had held other meetings to discuss the road bond. These meetings, held in secret, included Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jim Clark, and Marc Davenport, a political consultant and husband of County Treasurer Stephanne Davenport. That’s according to their indictments by a grand jury. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has suspended Doyal from office.

“The Texas Open Meetings Act is a fairly obscure law, but it serves a fairly common principle,” says Christopher Downey, the Houston attorney who has been named special prosecutor in the case, “and that is that it is designed in its core to prevent the participation of government officials in any backroom dealing or any secret side deals.”

Montgomery County Attorney J.D. Lambright says Commissioners Riley and Clark can continue to do their jobs, despite their indictments. Judge Doyal cannot. That leaves four members on the court, and the potential for tie votes, with serious business coming up.

“The most immediate thing, this is a very clear cut one, county starts their budget hearings next month,” Lambright says.

Violations of the Open Meetings Act are considered misdemeanors. If they’re found guilty, Doyal, Riley, and Clark could lose their jobs, though County Attorney Lambright says that convictions would only be the first step in the process. “Then you’ve got to get a finding eventually that that conviction constitutes an act of official misconduct,” he says.

Judge Doyal will have the opportunity to challenge his suspension in late July. Whether the commission upholds the suspension or not, it will take several months more for the criminal cases against Doyal and the other three defendants to play out.

Brandon Rottinghaus, who teaches political science at the University of Houston, says the cases could have long-term consequences for Montgomery County, thanks to the massive road bond that started it all.

“This is a lot of money, and the county is going to be on the hook for paying this back,” Rottinghaus says, “and if the perception is that the government can’t handle it, then the voters may lose faith in the individuals involved, and it may be that in the future they decide to simply not vote in favor of those bonds.”

Judge Doyal had been hoping to go back to voters for additional bonds, in order to meet mobility needs estimated at around $6 billion. Raising any of that extra money may have just gotten a lot harder.