For two days in a row, Doreen Geiger joined a handful of others holding signs demanding a forensic audit in front of the Tarrant Regional Water District headquarters. Some cars slowed. Some honked.
Each day, they went inside the building to reiterate this demand as the board considered setting its tax rate and other matters.
“My comments today are not about the tax rate, but they are about money,” Geiger told the board during the public comment portion of the meeting. “TRWD does need an audit done every year like most other organizations have. This year, in particular, it needs a forensic audit so this board can make sure the new general manager makes all the needed changes to put a stop to waste and fraudulent spending of taxpayers’ money.”
Geiger felt this was necessary after the district’s previous general manager almost retired with what amounted to an additional year’s salary without the full board’s approval.
A statewide public integrity unit based out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office used to investigate and prosecute cases such as the one Geiger is protesting at the water district.
Since the Texas Rangers took over that responsibility in 2015, 564 public integrity and corruption investigations have resulted in 67 prosecutions, according to a Texas Observer analysis.
Experts interviewed by the Austin-based publication said that this is because the Rangers often have to get permission from a local DA before they can launch a probe. The experts said some local DAs knew the accused and shielded them.
Only three of the 564 public integrity cases the Texas Rangers investigated involved officials from Tarrant County.
Because the Tarrant cases did not result in prosecutions, there are few public details about them.
Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson, who took office in in 2015, but after the change, said she has never turned away the Texas Rangers. Her office has a white collar/public integrity team that accepts cases from the Rangers and other law enforcement agencies. The team has been around since the 1980s and consists of three attorneys, three investigators and two financial analysts. It has about 211 pending cases, 15 of which involve a current or former elected official or person in a place of public trust.
When asked to cite a public integrity case that she thought her office handled well, Wilson pointed to one where a handful of Arlington police officers were accused of falsifying a government record. Specifically, the officers indicated they had conducted traffic stops when they had not. Court records show the officers’ cases were dismissed in 2017 a few days after they were indicted, though. They reached a plea agreement.
“When they resigned and surrendered their licenses, that was a win because we don’t need jails lined with nonviolent offenders. Not everybody has to go to prison to find justice, so justice was done in this case,” said Anna Tinsley Williams, a DA’s office spokeswoman.
When the Report asked Wilson if she’d recuse herself if her fellow county leaders were ever accused of a crime, Tinsley WIlliams said, “She makes every decision based on the law and facts in individual cases, so there’s just not a uniform umbrella answer for your question.”
Wilson has been the subject of a Texas Rangers’ public integrity investigation. In 2016, she was accused of breaking the law by emailing her employees and asking for their personal email addresses, cell phone numbers and home addresses. She was accused of then sending them an email invite to a campaign fundraiser. Then Wichita County DA Maureen Shelton declined the case, according to numerous media reports, including in the Appeal and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Wilson has rescued herself in at least one public integrity case, too. It involves former deputy medical examiner Dr. Marc Krouse, who was suspended and then fired after his superior audited his work and found numerous errors. Wilson asked Dallas County DA John Creuzot to determine whether Krouse should be charged with falsifying a government record.
“We’re not handling that case because we’ve sponsored him as a witness for 30 years and, by all accounts, he was a very good deputy medical examiner for almost all of that time,” Wilson said in an interview with the Report.
Her office has also helped smaller counties that have said they do not have the resources to prosecute public integrity cases or need to recuse themselves because of a conflict of interest. For example, it is prosecuting two Ellis County Auditor’s Office employees charged with theft.
“We always say ‘yes’ because we just can’t be in a position to not help somebody else,” Wilson said.
The Texas Rangers appear to have investigated only one other case similar to what is alleged to have occurred at the Tarrant Regional Water District.
In 2018, the Rangers launched an investigation into abuse of official capacity at the Agua Special Utility District. This came after local media reported the general manager there had approved severance payouts worth half a million dollars to two employees. The employees, who also served on a school board, had become ineligible to work for the water district under a new law that barred the Agua SUD board from hiring elected officials from other taxing entities.
Wilson did not respond to follow-up questions about whether her office was working with Texas Rangers to investigate and prosecute anyone associated with the water district, and Texas Rangers Spokeswoman Ericka Miller told the Report it had not received a complaint about it.
But that hasn’t deterred people like Geiger from continuing to seek accountability.
The night before a recent Tarrant County Commissioners Court meeting, she typed what she planned to say to them about the water district and emailed it to friends for their feedback.
In her first draft, Geiger wrote that the commissioners should direct Wilson to order the water district undergo a forensic audit.
“Then, I had to revise it because one of my friends called me afterward and said, ‘You don’t understand how the government works. Even though the DA’s office is a county department, the commissioners court can’t really direct the DA to do anything.’ I didn’t really understand that,” Geiger said.
Geiger then tried asking Wilson. She printed out hundreds of pages of public records and news articles that she thought proved wrongdoing at the water district and brought them to Wilson’s office downtown.
“I highlighted everything I wanted to jump off the page at them,” she said.
But an employee wouldn’t accept the parcel, instead directing her to the sheriff’s office. Now, Geiger is skeptical anything will be done.
“I’m one of the ones now that says it probably won’t be tried in court so it needs to be tried in the court of public opinion,” she said.
Top image: From left: Robert Vann, Linda Hanratty, Lon Burnam and Kit Jones protest outside the Tarrant Regional Water District on Sept. 20.