District clerk candidates trade accusations

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by TANYA EISERER

Bio | Email | Follow: @tanyaeiserer

WFAA

Posted on April 22, 2014 at 9:55 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 23 at 1:04 AM

NEWS 8 EXCLUSIVE

DALLAS — Tarsha Hardy says she's the little guy in the Goliath story.

Her district clerk runoff opponent, Felicia Pitre, is suing Hardy, alleging defamation over a mailer that mentioned an expunged indictment.

Hardy's former employer, the Dallas chapter of the Communications Workers of America, says she misrepresented her experience, campaigned while out on injury leave, and made false allegations that another employee pulled a knife on her.

“This is the consequence for speaking out against public corruption,” Hardy said. “This is what powerful and influential people do to restrict the voice of the little guy and basically silence them.”

Hardy and Pitre are locked in a two-way race for the Democratic nomination to lead the district clerk’s office, which employs more than 250 and has a $12.67 million annual budget. The job pays an annual salary of $127,000.

Hardy, vice chair of the Texas Democratic Party, is a relative newcomer to local politics. She moved to the area from Houston about two years ago. She took the political establishment by surprise when she was the top vote-getter in the March primary, with 28 percent of the vote to Pitre’s nearly 20 percent.

The lawsuit filed by Pitre has arisen over a mailer sent out to thousands of Democratic primary voters in February.

In big letters — with a picture of Pitre beside it — the mailer boldly states: "INDICTED for Tampering with Mail-In Ballots. Now she wants to control all the court documents in Dallas."

“One of my senior citizens who's a long-term friend, she called me and said, 'I got this paperwork and it says you’ve been indicted,'" Pitre said. '"What’s going on?'"

In 2001, a grand jury indicted Pitre on a felony tampering charge. Pitre helped an elderly blind woman fill out her mail-in ballot, but failed to record that she had helped her.

A judge later tossed the indictment, finding Pitre didn't violate the state's election code. Pitre successfully got the criminal records expunged.

Under state law, it never happened.

"I was innocent, and to have to defend myself all over again is very disconcerting," Pitre said.

She has worked for the district clerk’s office for about eight years. "It made people think that I was guilty, that I was convicted of a crime," she said.

Pitre oversees 47 employees as the criminal courts manager.

She is asking a judge to issue an injunction to prevent Hardy from making statements or "re-republishing any information about an alleged 'indictment,'" according to the lawsuit. A hearing has been scheduled for Thursday.

“What it does it is, it puts somebody in a false light,” said Pitre’s attorney, Pete Schulte. “It sends an impression that she has a criminal record; that she’s not fit for office because of that; and that’s just not true. It’s a flat-out lie.”

Hardy’s attorneys filed a motion Tuesday seeking to dismiss the lawsuit.

In an interview with News 8, Hardy defended the mailer, repeatedly saying that voters had the right to know about Pitre’s indictment.

“I told the truth,” Hardy said. “I stated she was indicted, and anybody that has an interest in this story ... is one Google away from finding out the truth for themselves."

Hardy said she did not know that Pitre's case had been dropped, nor did she know it had been expunged. But Hardy said even if she had known about the case dismissal and the decision to expunge the Pitre's record, she believed it was important to put the information out there.

Pitre and her supporters point out that the very office that Hardy is running for plays a key role in expunctions.

"It's the duty of the district clerk to protect the rights of people who have received expunction orders," said outgoing District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who is backing Pitre in the race. "What she has done is precisely the opposite of what a district clerk does."

The lawsuit isn’t Hardy’s only problem.

Her former employer is speaking publicly about what they said are serious integrity and work performance issues.

Hardy worked as a database specialist for the Communication Workers of America Local 6215 from October 2013 until earlier this year, said Bonnie Mathias, vice president of the local chapter.

“She did not have any direct reports,” Mathias said. “She was not a member of management. She did not have any responsibility over funding.”

The February mailer sent out by Hardy’s campaign touted that she “manages a multi-million dollar budget.”

Repeatedly asked whether the wording on the mailer was accurate, Hardy would not directly respond to the question. She eventually said that she “helped” manage a multi-million budget.

Mathias said Hardy had only been on the job for a few weeks when she falsely accused a fellow employee of “coming into her office and pulling out a black military knife and making the comment, 'A lot of people would cut you over this position.'"

In late December, Hardy took leave because she said she had a back injury, Mathias said.

“We have all kinds of photographs from her website and Facebook that she was actively campaigning while she was off of work supposedly with a back injury,” Mathias said.

The union laid Hardy off earlier this year, she said.

But after hearing reports in Democratic circles that Hardy was still claiming to work there, the union notified Hardy’s union representative on Friday that her reason “for leaving the job was being changed to termination for just cause, for the false accusations and for job performance,” Mathias said.

The union chapter is supporting Hardy’s opponent.

Hardy blamed Pitre and her backers for the questions that were being raised about her integrity and her work history.

“This is politics, and what has happened is, I did a big no-no. I told the truth; I told the truth about my opponent, and that has consequences,” Hardy said.

Hardy, who is currently unemployed, said she is fully devoted to campaigning for the district clerk job. She said she is confident that she will win the Democratic nomination.

E-mail teiserer@wfaa.com

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