Dallas County commissioners seek independent investigator into constables' actions

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by By KEVIN KRAUSE and ED TIMMS / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Updated Monday, Oct 19 at 5:55 PM

Dallas County Judge Jim Foster and two county commissioners said Tuesday that they will appoint an independent investigator to look into questionable towing operations and allegations of wrongdoing involving two constable precincts.

Foster and Commissioners Maurine Dickey and Kenneth Mayfield say they want to know if Precinct 1 Constable Derick Evans and Precinct 5 Constable Jaime Cortes have broken any laws.

Foster said no decision has been made about whom to appoint but that the person probably will have an extensive law enforcement background. A vote on the matter is expected Tuesday.

Foster would not specify the exact focus of the investigation. But Dickey said the investigator will talk to numerous deputy constables from Precincts 1 and 5 who have complained about illegal activity, including being forced to work for free.

"Everyone's wondering what's going on. We can't keep our head in the sand," Dickey said during a news conference Tuesday. "I assure you we will get to the bottom of this."

Evans denied any wrongdoing and said Foster hadn't done his homework before making allegations.

"So I think I'll just ... get me an attorney and deal with Judge Foster on this," he said.

Cortes also denied any wrongdoing.

"I don't have a problem answering any questions anyone has," he said.

Dickey said the independent investigator also will look into complaints about towed vehicles disappearing and people being overcharged at the constables' impound lot.

Evans and Cortes recently have come under fire for using primarily one company to tow and impound thousands of vehicles without requiring the company to submit reports showing what happened to the vehicles.

And Cortes and some of his deputies for some time have been driving vehicles with temporary tags, raising questions about where they acquired the vehicles.

DA's role

Normally, such an investigation would be undertaken by the district attorney.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said Tuesday that he cannot confirm or deny whether his office is investigating the constables.

But two knowledgeable sources in the DA's office said Tuesday that an investigation of the constables has been going on for several months.

Mayfield and Dickey, both Republicans, voiced frustration Tuesday over what they called Watkins' inaction. They said Watkins, a Democrat, was vague and cryptic about whether he's investigating Evans and Cortes, who also are Democrats.

"We do not have an answer from him, and the time has come to act," Dickey said. "We have to have some details to know if the job is being done."

Foster, a Democrat, said it was important to have an independent investigator to avoid potential conflicts of interest with the DA's office. He said civil attorneys in Watkins' office either are defending or could defend Cortes and Evans in civil cases. As a result, Foster said, the DA can't also investigate or prosecute them at the same time.

Last month, for example, a deputy constable fired by Evans sued the county. Watkins' office is expected to defend the county in that case.

Foster said Watkins should have accepted a recent offer of help from the Texas attorney general.

The attorney general's office offered its services to Watkins on Monday but was turned down, spokesman Jerry Strickland said. The attorney general does not have the authority to investigate local officials unless a district attorney requests or accepts its help.

Becky Gregory, an associate deputy attorney general, said in a letter to Terri Moore, who is Watkins' second-in-command, that she offered the resources of her agency's Criminal Justice Division.

Question of authority

Watkins said Foster and the commissioners have no authority to hire an investigator, who he said would have no subpoena power. He also said such an investigator would interfere in a criminal investigation by his office if there was one.

He called the commissioners' actions a waste of time and money and "political posturing." Watkins suggested that his budget battles with the commissioners have something to do with the commissioners' actions, a charge the commissioners deny.

Commissioner Mike Cantrell said he will not vote to hire an investigator because the chief of the DA's civil division, who is the commissioners' legal adviser, said the commissioners didn't have the authority to do so.

He added that he thinks there should be a "full-scale investigation by anyone who can do it."

Commissioner John Wiley Price said the head of the district attorney's civil division told him and the other commissioners that an outside agency is investigating the constable matter, without giving details.

"I don't want to interfere with a criminal investigation," he said. "I'm not willing to get into the mix on this. We have no investigative powers."

Mayfield said the Commissioners Court does have the authority to hire an investigator. He noted that the court did so in 2007 to investigate sexual harassment allegations against Mike Dupree, the former Precinct 5 constable who resigned that year to avoid a trial. In that case, the attorney general's office also conducted a criminal investigation.

Mayfield said he wasn't surprised Watkins turned down help from the state. He said Watkins' office has had sworn statements from deputy constables about alleged wrongdoing for about two months.

"For some reason, I don't think he wants anything done with this," Mayfield said.

Fired deputies

Dickey said Cortes and Evans have fired deputies who had brought allegations against the constables, forcing the commissioners to move them to different precincts.

Both men rely heavily on Dowdy Ferry Auto Services to tow and impound vehicles, but they've acknowledged they don't know what's happening to those vehicles.

State law requires that owners be told in writing where to recover their vehicles. If they don't, the vehicles are considered abandoned after a period and can be auctioned. But Dowdy Ferry, which is being investigated by state regulators, doesn't auction abandoned vehicles, according to the owner.

; etimms@dallasnews.com

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