HUTCHINS — Hutchins City Secretary Janis Daniels comes to work every day — just as she did before she was indicted on a misdemeanor theft charge accusing her of misusing her city credit accounts.
Daniels says she isn’t a thief.
“It’s all vindictive,” she said. “It's a mess, that’s what it is.”
Daniels, 50, was referring to a 16-month public corruption investigation that sent shock waves through this tiny town in southeast Dallas county. A parade of city officials were indicted on a variety of charges in late March, including Mayor Artis Johnson on two misdemeanor counts.
So is this a case of small town politics... or corruption?
“I’ve been in this city 15 years,” Daniels said. “I’ve been in this city all my life. It is political.”
Throughout the interview, Daniels alluded to the mayoral election coming up on Saturday. She hinted that the city’s top lawman was carrying someone’s political water.
Daniels has the backing of Johnson and the Hutchins City Council, which kept her on the job.
“I’m following the penal code,” said Police Chief Frank McElligott, who became chief in Hutchins after a 28-year career with Plano.
He denies any ulterior motives and said he was just doing his job.
Asked what he thought about the City Council’s decision to keep Daniels on the job, the chief replied: “That’s for the City Council to decide. I work for them. She works for them. It’s their decision.”
McElligott said the public corruption investigation grew out of an earlier probe of a former municipal court clerk who was accused of stealing more than $14,000 in fine money. The former clerk told investigators about other city employees who she said were engaged in criminal wrongdoing.
The chief said Daniels was using her city credit accounts to make purchases to the tune of at least $2,500. Most of the purchases were for groceries at a Sam's Club in Duncanville. Only about $500 was within the statute of limitations and subject to prosecution.
Daniels readily admits that she used the town's accounts for personal use, but says she had permission from the city finance director.
“You could charge, but when you got back in the city you had to reimburse. I reimbursed when I got back in to the city,” she said.
Daniels said that she provided receipts going back as far as 2008 showing that she had reimbursed the city for the purchases.
A memo from the Hutchins City Attorney appears to back up Daniels’ story that she wasn’t the only one.
“City employees frequently used … city accounts for personal purchases,” City Attorney Joseph Gorfida wrote in the February 2014 memo. “The previous finance director permitted this practice as long as the employees reimbursed the city and paid taxes for those items that were taxable.”
The memo further states that the City Council met on January 22 in executive session to discuss her “overall performance.” It states that the City Council “unfounded the charges” that she had used city accounts then failed to reimburse the city. It also found that some of the purchases that the chief had identified as “personal were, in fact, purchases made for the city.”
“They didn’t really have nothing wrong enough to take her job,” Johnson said.
An internal investigation ultimately determined that Daniels owed the city $164.57, the memo said.
Daniels says she didn’t believe she owed the money, but went ahead and paid it anyway. The City Council also put her on six months' probation at that January meeting.
She had hoped that would be the end of it.
McElligott took his findings to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office.
He said it doesn’t matter that Daniels ultimately reimbursed all of the money to the city, because by city policy, only the city administrator — in this case, the mayor — had the authority to authorize the use of city credit cards for personal use.
“According to a written statement he gave me, he didn’t give anyone permission to use the credit card for personal use,” the chief said.
Mayor Johnson said he believes he got caught in McElligott’s crosshairs, in part, because he stood up for Daniels. Johnson was indicted on two misdemeanors over an incident involving a check.
The mayor is accused of having the finance director deposit a $304 check made out to the city, and then having a check issued in the same amount to the former public works director.
He said that the public works director lied and told him that employees had recycled some personal items. He said he only recently became aware that there was a ring of city employees selling city property to recyclers.
“I didn’t know anything about city property being scrapped,” said Johnson, who is not running for re-election.
McElligott said he was not going to “speculate” on what the mayor knew and when he knew it. He has previously acknowledged that the mayor did not make any money from the scheme.
A receipt shows that Johnson repaid the $304 back into the city’s account.
“Obviously, the grand jury has indicted those cases and I’m just waiting to go to trial,” the chief said. “As soon as they set them for trial, we’ll take our information and go testify.”