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Tarrant Appraisal District director fired after internal investigation

The investigation raises questions about problems with the district's website that might've prevented some homeowners from protesting their home's valuation.

FORT WORTH, Texas — The Tarrant Appraisal District's director of information systems has been fired in the wake of an investigation into allegations that raised questions about the cause of website problems users experienced earlier this year.

Cal Wood was terminated, according to an announcement from the district Friday.

Tarrant County officials had called for a change in the Tarrant Appraisal District's leadership, after TAD suspended Wood and launched an internal investigation this week. 

The inquiry was centered on audio obtained by WFAA that raises questions about the cause of website problems users experienced in April and May. A whistleblower secretly recorded Wood telling staff he is "okay with creating a false narrative that distances the truth from the media" in August. 

The district statement Friday called Wood's comments "completely unrepresentative of the values held at TAD."

"TAD apologizes for the confusion these statements have caused and remains committed to providing the public and members of the media with accurate and timely information," the statement said.

The mayors of Southlake, Keller and Colleyville also jointly issued a call for chief appraiser Jeff Law's ouster Thursday. They joined Tarrant County Judge Tim O'Hare, who called TAD the "least transparent" government entity he's seen since he became an elected official. 

"The public trust has been totally lost," O'Hare told WFAA Thursday. "There's a culture problem. There's a leadership problem. I think it's time for the board to recognize a change must happen." 

Homeowners use the TAD website to protest appraisals of their home's taxable value. The website also features a tool, which automatically offers protesting residents a settlement valuation. 

"The tool is fantastic," realtor Chandler Crouch, who files protests for free on behalf of Tarrant residents, said. "The problem is that it wasn't available for about the first 30 days the website was live."

Law and the board extended the deadline to file a protest by 15 days, allowing the technicians time to improve the site's functionality.

Still, Crouch said some homeowners who tried to protest their appraisal while the website wasn't working might've given up after they encountered problems. 

"They probably just clicked off and forgot about it," Crouch said. "Now, they're having to pay taxes on a higher value because of it."

During a May board meeting, Law and Wood told members the district stripped down its website in fall 2022 because they discovered "vulnerabilities" that could expose private information homeowners submitted to the site. 

"When you upload a sales document to me saying, 'My house is not worth this. Here's my sales contract.' That needs to be secure," Law said. "That's where we found vulnerabilities."

The Tarrant Appraisal District instituted changes to its website "proactively," Wood claimed, at least a month before hackers attacked other Texas appraisal districts. The Dallas County Appraisal District eventually paid attackers $170,000 to regain control of its website. 

Wood said his staff gutted TAD's website, removing features and tools homeowners were used to employing, to rebuild its database structures and secure data. The barebones site was still compliant with minimum requirements spelled out in state law, he said, though the website would not load for some users. 

During discussion about the problems, TAD board member Richard DeOtte asked Wood if the district had been hacked "three times" in 2022. 

"I cannot answer that because I don't know that we had three hacks last year," Wood said, after a five second pause. He briefly debated the definition of a "hack" with board members before Law changed the conversation's direction. 

Law and Wood did not offer a direct answer to DeOtte's question. 

Crouch said the August audio recording of Wood indicating he's okay with misleading the public raises new questions about the TAD website's security. 

"What's the truth?" Crouch asked. "What vulnerabilities do we have and were any property owners' private information accessed?"

A spokesperson for TAD told WFAA Wednesday that Wood's comments in the audio recording "do not reflect the values of TAD’s board of directors nor their management of TAD." 

"TAD is committed to providing the public and media with accurate, factual information related to its duties, responsibilities, and actions," the statement continued. "Upon learning of the audio recorded statements, the Chief Appraiser notified the TAD board of directors and launched a full investigation of the circumstances. The employee on the recording is currently suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. TAD is committed to gaining a full understanding of the context and reasoning behind the statement."

A TAD board member Thursday confirmed Wood is the employee referenced in the statement. 

Keller Mayor Armin Mizani said he'll call for a mostly symbolic vote of no confidence in Jeff Law at his council's next meeting in September. 

"I believe there's a culture problem at TAD," Mizani said. "This is one scandal too many. At the end of the day, we need a new chief appraiser."

Law survived a vote of no confidence by his own board two weeks ago for problems unrelated to the website. 

"Leadership starts at the top," Mizani said. "We've lost our trust in the Tarrant Appraisal District."

Law did not respond to WFAA's request for a response to calls for his ouster Thursday. 

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