Conroe and Coldsprings, May 1 – 9th District Judge Phil Grant of Montgomery County abruptly ended the criminal trial against former San Jacinto County Judge John Lovett when Judge Grant rendered a directed verdict in favor of Lovett and against the State of Texas, which Attorney General Ken Paxton’s Office represented in the proceedings. Houston criminal defense attorney Chip Lewis represented Lovett in the case in which a Montgomery County Jury began to hear evidence on Monday, April 29, 2019.
The State rested their prosecution case before lunchtime on Tuesday, April 30. Several of Lovett’s political foes, including current San Jacinto County Judge Fritz Faulkner (D-Coldspring), testified as prosecution witnesses. The main witness for the prosecution was San Jacinto County Clerk Dawn Wright, also a democrat, who clearly didn’t get along with Lovett while he served as a Republican County Judge from January, 2015, to August, 2018.
The case arose from events on Friday, July 7, 2017, when Lovett had finished a day of work in the San Jacinto County Judge’s Office and realized he had not yet posted the agenda for the Tuesday, July 11, 2019, regularly-scheduled Commissioners Court meeting in Coldspring, the County seat of San Jacinto County. It was approximately 5:15 p.m. that afternoon.
Under the Texas Open Meetings Act, Chapter 551 of the Texas Government Code, the County Judge needed to post the meeting agenda in a public place for such notices 72 hours in advance of the meeting. He had plenty of time to accomplish a timely posting. Many governmental bodies also file a copy of their meeting agendas with the County Clerk so there is an official stamp showing the approximate time of agenda preparation.
The problem for Lovett on July 7, however, was that the County Clerk of San Jacinto County, Dawn Wright, had already left her office for the day and closed the office at 5 o’clock p.m., the normal closing time for the San Jacinto County Clerk. Lovett knew had didn’t have to date-stamp the agenda, but he chose to do so anyway.
Using his master key to all San Jacinto County offices, Lovett went into the County Clerk’s Office by himself, used County Clerk Wright’s time and date stamp and placed them on a copy of the July 11 Commissioners Court agenda.
Lovett’s entry into the County Clerk’s Office set off a silent alarm in the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office, which immediately began to search for the location where the alarm had sounded. A few minutes later, AD Todd, who is now Chief Sheriff’s Deputy of San Jacinto County but was a Sheriff’s Lieutenant at the time, saw Lovett walking down the hall of the Courthouse and discussed with the County Judge that the Sheriff’s Office had been searching for the location where an alarm had sounded. Lovett told then-Lieutenant Todd, “That was me. I went into the County Clerk’s Office” Lovett told Todd he had done some paperwork in there.
Only Judge Lovett and the San Jacinto County maintenance director had master keys.
Lovett’s attorney argued in his opening statement before the Jury that this case represents the “criminalization of political differences, and that’s it.”
A San Jacinto Grand Jury indicated Lovett for burglary, tampering with a government document, and forgery. Lovett faced two years in prison, if convicted.
In order to prove forgery, the State must provide proof of intent to defraud or harm. Judge Grant commented, “The issue I’m having is proof of intent to defraud or harm…The Commissioners Court knew what had happened [when in met four days later.] This stamp had absolutely no practical effect on proceedings of the Commissioners Court.”
The Attorney General’s Office attempted to argue that County Clerk Wright had suffered harm from the use of her date and time stamp without her authority. “That will call into question in the future whether people can rely on her signature,” the prosecutor attempted to argue.
Judge Grant noted that the date and time stamp was accurate, so the information on the notice didn’t defraud anyone. Citing precedent from an appellate case, Grant then granted a directed verdict against the State as to all three counts, burglary, tampering, and forgery.
The Court acquitted Lovett who was obviously very elated with the outcome.
Lovett told The Golden Hammer last night, “This has been a long and difficult journey for me. It’s unfortunate that the criminalization of political differences ended with me being charged, indicted, arrested and tried on baseless grounds. It cost me the election as JP. I was very fortunate to have a wise jurist who understood the political natures of these charges, and consequently, directed verdicts on all counts.”
The former County Judge added, “Politics has long been a blood sport in San Jacinto County. My arrest was three weeks before the election. That’s what this was all about.”
Lovett still faces a possible charge for impersonating a government official, but it’s unclear whether that charge will proceed.