Dallas County Judge Jim Foster has called on District Attorney Craig Watkins to oust embattled Constable Jaime Cortes from office through a rarely used civil removal process in state law.
Foster and his allies on the Commissioners Court are seeking a way to respond to the results of an investigative report released last week that accused Cortes of bribery and other misdeeds.
“Based on this report alone, I believe this is enough information to proceed with a removal petition,” Foster said. “How much more information do you need?”
A spokeswoman for Watkins said Friday that it would be irresponsible to comment on something that may or may not occur.
Even with the support of Watkins, any attempt to use the so-called removal petition to force Cortes out would not be easy, legal experts say.
Coincidentally, Cortes’ attorney, Lawrence Friedman, said his client is planning to file a removal petition against Foster this week on the grounds that he ordered an illegal investigation of Cortes.
“You can’t take the law into your own hands. You can’t be a vigilante,” Friedman said about Foster. “He just decided he was Charles Bronson.”
The removal petition process outlined in Texas’ local government code is used to force out county officials for incompetence, official misconduct or drunkenness following a jury trial. Such a petition can be filed by any county resident.
When a removal petition is successful, it’s usually filed in conjunction with a criminal case. However, petitions have succeeded across the state even when an official hasn’t been convicted of any crime.
Foster and Commissioners Maurine Dickey and Kenneth Mayfield have found themselves increasingly frustrated by their limited power – largely confined to budgetary controls – over the activities of the county’s five elected constables.
Much of their concern has focused on Cortes, the subject of last week’s investigative report. In addition, one of Cortes’ top lieutenants has been charged with numerous felonies as part of a continuing criminal investigation by Watkins.
Cortes has remained defiant. For example, he has disregarded a court order the commissioners issued in July instructing him to submit all proposed dismissals to the county’s human resources department and the district attorney.
The commissioners’ only recourse has been to refuse to fill vacant positions in Cortes’ office. To have any real authority over a constable’s office, commissioners would have to seek specific legislation.
Foster said he has heard from numerous people who are willing to file a removal petition, possibly as early as this week. “I believe this report is damaging enough. It’s time to move forward,” he said.
But if Cortes is re-elected and a removal petition fails, commissioners will be left with an expensive report and no authority to act on it. Cortes faces three challengers in the March 2 Democratic primary, which will decide the winner since no Republicans have filed to run.
Danny Defenbaugh, a special investigator the commissioners hired last year, concluded in his report that Cortes’ Precinct 5 office is rife with prolific and systemic corruption.
Cortes has not been charged with a crime and denies any wrongdoing, saying he’s the victim of a political witch hunt.
Commissioner John Wiley Price, who opposed the county’s special investigation, last week called it “$137,000 worth of hearsay.”
As of Friday, Defenbaugh has been paid $163,200, county officials say.
Mayfield, who voted for the Defenbaugh investigation, said several options are being considered in terms of what to do with the report but that no decision has been made. He declined to say what the options are.