Conroe, April 30 – The criminal jury trial of former San Jacinto County Judge John Lovett began yesterday in Conroe before the 9th District Court of Montgomery County, Judge Phil Grant presiding, after a change of venue in the case had moved the trial from Coldspring to Conroe. Lovett stands trial on indictments for burglary, forgery, and tampering with government records.
The Texas Judicial Conduct Commission suspended Lovett as San Jacinto County judge on March 23, 2018. His term as County Judge expired on January 1, 2019, since he did not run for re-election. Lovett lost in a runoff election for Justice of the Peace in May, 2018.
Both the Texas Attorney General’s Office, which is prosecuting the case, and Lovett’s attorney presented opening statements to the Jury yesterday in which they seemed to agree that the basic facts of the charges against Lovett are not in dispute.
On Friday, July 7, 2017, 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 the date and signature stamp with County Clerk Wright’s official signature, 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.
Todd prepared an offense report which described the “res gestae statement,” a willing statement someone gives to law enforcement authorities. Todd explained there were no signs of any forcible entry. 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.” He acknowledged that Lovett didn’t get along with San Jacinto County Clerk Wright and many other elected officials in the County government. The defense claims this criminal case arises from those negative feelings.
Wright, the County Clerk, testified as a prosecution witness after Chief Deputy Todd. Wright clearly didn’t have positive feelings about Lovett whom she barely looked at even when the prosecutors asked her to identify him in the Courtroom in front of the Jury.
Lovett faces up to two years in prison, if the Jury convicts him.