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Hot checks and a hung jury By Dave McNeely Hillsboro The State Bar of Texas put its ability to regulate conduct of lawyers on the line here earlier this month, and came away a loser. The case involved Frank B. McGregor, a former legislator and current district attorney for Hill County. The State Bar said McGregor had carried out a hot-check collection method that involved assessment of illegal financial penalties. But a Hill County jury refused to find McGregor guilty of the operation even though he admitted having used it for a period from 1969 through early 1971. The droning trial took 11 days before the jury came back and said it was hopelessly . deadlocked. According to people on the jury, the vote was 7-5 in favor of letting McGregor off. As a result, visiting Dist. Judge, J. F. Clawson of Belton had no choice but to declare a mistrial. State Bar chief counsel Davis Grant said after the trial that he plans to try McGregor again before another jury. TO UNDERSTAND what went on in the trial, some background is necessary. McGregor, after serving several terms in the Legislature from Waco, ran a losing race for the state Senate in 1962. About five years later, he moved to Hillsboro, where his mother’s family had short of a jillion well-known, well-respected folks through the years. In 1968, McGregor says, friends persuaded him to run against then-District Attorney Tom Beard. McGregor beat him about two to one. One of his major campaign pledges was to help local merchants collect on their hot checks. McGregor, upon taking office in 1969, set out to do so, which everyone applauded. The only problem was the method he chose. McGregor sent out letters on his district attorney’s stationery to people who had passed hot checks, giving them five days to contact his office to make arrangements for restitution and payment of a penalty charge. If they didn’t do so, he would be forced to file criminal charges against them, he warned. Criminal prosecution for a hot check charge in Texas allows assessment of a fine and court costs, by a court, plus restitution. The law makes no mention of collecting a financial penalty for cases that are never filed. McGregor later maintained that his efforts to collect on the checks, and The writer works for The Dallas Morning News. assessment of a financial penalty, was a civil practice he carried on on the side. \(In smaller Texas counties, district and county attorneys are allowed to carry on a private practice, because it is assumed that the wages for their public duties aren’t enough however, to explain why he was using the district attorney’s stationery to dun the hot-check violators for the financial penalties, and why he was threatening prosecution if the violators didn’t pay the penalties. The second problem was that McGregor put the money from the hot check restitutions and penalties into a trust account, in which he kept funds from several other ventures. He also spent money out of the account for such matters as his daughter’s wedding reception. The State Bar’s canons of ethics prohibit commingling of public and private funds. McGregor, again leaning on the contention that collection of the penalties was a civil matter, said the funds didn’t belong to the public. It also developed that McGregor’s office had collected fines and court costs from some hot-check violators, despite the fact that cases had never been filed against them. FINALLY, it came to Hillsboro Dist. Judge Steven Latham’s attention just exactly what McGregor was doing, in early January of 1971. Latham started an investigation into McGregor’s office operations then, and a suit to declare McGregor unfit to hold office was filed a few weeks later. McGregor resigned instead. But when Gov. Preston Smith appointed Bobby Dehoney to replace him, McGregor tried to no avail to recall his resignation. McGregor’s removal suit had been brought by County Attorney Betty Dehoney, Bobby’s wife. State law requires the county attorney be a party to such a suit. McGregor stopped the illegal check collection process, however, and attempted to make good on the amounts he had collected as court costs for cases that had never been filed. He first tried to pay that money into the county treasury, because Judge Latham indicated that it probably belonged to the county. But Latham advised the, county treasurer to refuse McGregor’s check. So McGregor, saying he acted on advice of a former district attorney, -filed false charges of “creating a nuisance” a non-existent charge against the 11 hot-check violators in a justice of the peace court. He plead them guilty and paid their alleged fines and court costs into the county coffers that way. McGregor might not have run into any further problems if he had decided just to return to the private practice of law and forget public office. But he felt his integrity had been impugned, and so he decided to seek office again in 1972. He filed first against Betty Dehoney for county attorney. She decided not to run. At the last minute, McGregor switched and ran against Bobby Dehoney for district attorney. In a heated, mud-slinging campaign, McGregor won a narrow victory. And the State Bar of Texas made a strong effort to get him removed from the bar, which would automatically disqualify him as a district attorney. BAR COUNSEL Grant says the efforts to disbar McGregor began before McGregor sought and won re-election, and would have continued regardless of whether McGregor won re-election. McGregor’s backers, however, believe the bar’s efforts are some sort of political vendetta against McGregor. McGregor had indeed been involved in some political problems in Hill County, carrying on an apparent tradition. One man, who served with McGregor in the Legislature and described him as “clabberheaded,” said he seemed to have gotten ‘more so since leaving that body. There were complaints in Hill County especially from Dist. Judge Steve Latham, who was the complainant in McGregor’s disbarment trial that McGregor often appeared for criminal trials ill-prepared, that sometimes he didn’t appear and had to be fetched. There also were intimations that McGregor spent more time pursuing his personal business interests than he did carrying out the state’s business. Indications were that McGregor would have accepted a reprimand from the bar July 27, 1973 5