GUILTY: Jury convicts Liberty County commissioner on abuse of official capacity
A Liberty County jury on Friday took just a little over six hours to deliberate and convict sitting Liberty County Pct. 1 Commissioner Mike McCarty on both counts of abuse of official capacity.
A courtroom filled with more than 100 observers, many of them supporters of McCarty, were stunned as the visiting Honorable Joe Ned Dean, judge in the 258th District Court, read the verdict found by the 12-member jury.
The jury assessed both counts as Class B misdemeanors, and under Texas law, a Class B misdemeanor is punishable by up to 180 days in jail, a fine of up to $2,000, or both. The judge could also give probation since he is a first-time offender.
“Public servant accountability. I think the verdict says it all,” said visiting prosecutor Polk County Criminal District Attorney William Lee Hon. “The voters expect transparency and ethics in their elected public officials and I think this verdict reinforces that.”
McCarty, who seemed stoic as he stood to listen to the jury’s verdict read, was clearly not happy with the results.
“I’m not pleased with the verdict at all but I’m still confident that the judicial system will allow me to plan some things and discuss with my attorneys which direction we’ll go from here,” he said.
He couldn’t say whether or not they will file an appeal, but did say it was among their options.
“It makes us sad,” said defense attorney Bill Stradley, “because Mr. McCarty was doing the best that he could and we’ll have to decide if we want to go forward with an appeal.”
Stradley was shaken by the verdict and embraced McCarty.
“I have a lot of respect for this man and still do. I know that a lot of people in this community do and he can hold his head high,” he said following the trial.
The prosecutor used seven minutes of his closing argument time to address legalities with the jury and remind them McCarty had admitted to using county resources to his benefit.
“Why should you care? What is the legacy of this case? Is it okay to manage Pct. 1 resources to his benefit?” Hon asked the jury. “Do you expect him to be honest? You give a green light to other politicians in the county if he’s found not guilty that there are no consequences.”
The defense countered, reminding jury members that there were three guiding principles for them to consider in the jury room: there was a presumption of innocence, the burden of proof is on the prosecutors, and they had to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt.
“Some of these charges are chicken [expletive],” said defense attorney Neal Davis. “He never acted with criminal intent.”
The defense continued to remind jurors of the untrustworthiness of his lifelong pal, Clair ‘Buck’ Gordon, who McCarty pumped thousands of dollars into over the years only to watch him turn state’s witness and testify against him.
Gordon, who committed enough himself to be prosecuted, received immunity on Monday for his testimony in the case.
“Gordon lied about his hours and he lied about being offered a full-time job,” Davis said. Gordon also tampered with government documents.
But it may have been McCarty’s contradictory testimony on the stand explaining what he said to the grand jury that may have drawn the ire of the jury.
“There was strong evidence that he was guilty to some point. Proving intent and who benefitted was the longest part of the deliberation,” said Gerald Ward, jury foreman from Dayton.
The jury foreman said it came down to the numbers.
“As far as the levels were: Class A, Class B, Class C or felony, all was determined based on evidence that we could prove with the dollar amount. It was as simple as that,” Ward said. “Simple math.”
The jury had asked for a calculator early on in their deliberations.
“We just assessed by going through each count and added it up. We didn’t look for a Class B count; it just turned out that was what the numbers were,” the foreman said.
Ward said once they got into the jury room, they took a vote and the count was split 50-50.
“We went through each allegation and determined the evidence for each count and then determined whether it was relevant and if we all agreed. It took quite a while to go through Count 1 and Count 2 that way,” he said.
Ward said the jury was hung up until 5 p.m. and it was a determination on value amount, not so much on guilt or innocence.
The jury didn’t ask for any testimony because Ward said they each had remembered vividly the responses of the witnesses, including McCarty himself.
“Everyone had already arrived at the conclusion that guilt wasn’t a question, it was just at what level or value we could literally prove,” he said.
Ward also said that both the prosecution and defense had holes in their stories.
“We felt like some of the testimony might have been valid, but the proof of that testimony was lacking on both sides - the prosecution and the defense,” he said.
Ward rejected the idea that the jury was looking to send a message, but instead looked upon McCarty with compassion.
“We never discussed sending a message. We all agreed that there’s a man’s livelihood at stake and it wasn’t an issue about sending a message; it was [about] evaluating the facts,” he said. “No one had an axe to grind. To my knowledge, no one on the jury even lived in his precinct or voted for him. These were all outside people looking in.”
One of the major allegations was that McCarty had ordered his employee David Tanner to use the maintainer/grader on what appeared to be a county road.
Following the testimony of County Clerk Paulette Williams, the prosecution put Pct. 2 Commissioner Greg Arthur on the stand to rebut her assertion that the road was a county road.
The commissioner testified there was no county road signs and, in fact, it was inside the city limits of Daisetta and couldn’t be maintained without an agreement between the city and the county and there was no such agreement. The numbering of the roads was confusing and out of order and didn’t make sense.
It may have been moot as jurors, according to Ward, were focused on the items they could prove by the body of evidence.
The jury foreman said he thought McCarty was a good man and all were concerned about his health.
“We took common sense and applied it, threw out assumptions and possibilities and used only what was proven,” he said.
A disappointed defense attorney Bill Stradley said, “When you look back on the time of Mike McCarty as commissioner, this is a guy who literally mowed the lawn at the courthouse himself and that repairing the lawnmower was made a complaint in this case is really ironic,” Stradley said. McCarty said the belt on his own mower, which he was using at the courthouse, had fallen off and asked county employees to put the belt back on so he could continue mowing the county property.
Hon said he felt like they had done enough to get a conviction.
“I knew that he had admitted to some of the minor offenses so I felt comfortable that there would be enough there for the jury to find a guilty verdict, at least as to a Class B misdemeanor and it played out kind of like I thought I would,” he said.
Hon said he hoped the verdict would be a deterrent to other similarly-minded public servants who attempt to cross the line.
“This was a violation of the public trust on whatever scale you want to call it. He crossed that line and now he’s been held accountable.”
The judge will sentence McCarty and enter an order on Monday at 1:30 p.m. removing him from office. That could be stayed depending on whether there is an appeal.
Ward summed up the jury sentiment with the American idiom, “It wasn’t that you took one cookie or ten cookies, but you got your hand caught in the cookie jar,” the jury foreman said.