These Texans are ‘citizen watchdogs’ who fought hard to expose wrongdoing and succeeded
In Watchdog Nation, little people can stand up and win against the big shots.
Published; Jan 2nd, 2020
I call them citizen watchdogs. They don’t start out that way, but circumstances instill them with courage and the boldness to fight for what they believe is right.
Who were the top citizen watchdogs who fought for their causes in 2019 and worked hard to get the word out about their findings?
A former school board member who sued his district. A foe of an appraisal district. A lottery watchdog from Garland. A school district critic. A homeowner fighting his insurance company. Four University of North Texas history students. And, finally, a legendary Dallas police detective.
Ex-RISD trustee sues
David Tyson Jr., a former Richardson ISD school board member, took on his entire school district. He filed two lawsuits against the district. He sued to create single-member districts rather than at-large seats on the school board. In the second, he charged his former colleagues with a pattern of open meetings violations.
He accused them of sending — and deleting — emails, texts and voice messages in order to deliberate illegally off the grid, instead of in public as state law requires.
One study showed the board voted unanimously 443 out of 444 board votes.
In settling both lawsuits, the district agreed to pay Tyson’s lawyer $385,000 in taxpayer (or insurance) money. Five single-member districts will replace at-large seats. And the board agreed to take further open government training.
When Daniel “Joe” Bennett complained about his treatment at the Tarrant County Appraisal District, an official told him, “If you don’t like the law, change it.”
So Bennett worked to do exactly that. Now that same official who challenged him is out of a job. Quite amazing.
The official is Randy Armstrong, who leads the residential division at the appraisal district. Bennett pushed successfully for a change in state law that bans officials from working in an appraisal district while at the same time serving on an elected board that sets a property tax rate.
That law went into effect last week. Armstrong has resigned from his position as president of the White Settlement ISD so he could keep his day job at the appraisal district — and avoid a conflict of interest the new law tries to prevent.
Dawn Nettles of Garland takes on the Texas Lottery.
When she launched her lottoreport.com website in 1998, the Garland resident figured it would serve as a central hub for players to get winning numbers, game history and lottery news.
She didn’t know that she’d end up working as a volunteer investigative reporter. All these years later she’s considered one of the nation’s top lottery citizen watchdogs.
In 2019, she broke a couple of big stories on her website that I later highlighted.
A new $10 scratch-off game called “The Big Ticket” was flawed because the numbers were not where players expected them to be. Winning tickets were accidentally thrown away.
She also worked for months on open records requests to learn that lottery director Gary Grief travels around the globe a lot. He makes 18 to 20 work-related trips to conferences and other events every year, she learned.
A lottery spokeswoman responded that all trips were on official business and in compliance with state travel rules.
Lovejoy ISD critic
Brenda Rizos took on the leadership of her school district, Lovejoy ISD. Like Nettles, Rizos of Lucas has been at it for 20 years. She began as a school volunteer but then saw behavior she questioned and began to do her own investigating.
For this, she became a social outcast in the community. She learned to live with it. Some thought she was nuts.
Then two things happened in 2019 that vindicated her.
In February, Superintendent Ted Moore, the main target of her poison pen, was ousted for undisclosed reasons, except for a brief statement by the board that his removal stemmed from “alleged misconduct” with “adult victims.”
Moore countered that he was stepping down for health reasons.
Then in December, we learned that the Texas Ethics Commission had ruled favorably on a complaint by Rizos that Moore improperly used taxpayer resources to promote a tax-ratification election.
Moore told me he will pay the $1,500 fine, but he disputes the findings. He said he agreed to settle the case because legal fees would have cost him much more.
A former editor, Eugene Roberts, taught me that big societal stories don’t break. No one holds a news conference. Rather, he said, “they slowly trickle, seep and ooze.”
That’s how I see Herb Hollis, who took on his insurance company, USAA. He could be the canary in the coal mine when it comes to USAA insurance and an apparent new strategy of fighting some customers on their claims.
He told me that the company that favors veterans was holding up payment on his roof repair.
After that, I heard from others who support the company. But I also heard from many customers who have similar problems.
Something is going on at once-beloved USAA, and it didn’t break. Rather, it’s trickling, seeping and oozing.
Digging up the Klan
My youngest citizen watchdogs took on the Ku Klux Klan. Four University of North Texas history students proved you can still be a watchdog a century after the crimes occurred.
They began their project believing they were going to research an old slave cemetery near Pilot Point.
But their research led them into a dark and evil corner of Denton County’s history. They wondered why the African American population decreased significantly in the early part of the 20th century.
They created a spreadsheet that shows every public mention of the Ku Klux Klan in Denton newspapers and public records from 1917 to 1928. They created a separate spreadsheet of every arrest of a black person in Denton County during a similar time period. Then they merged the documents.
Their finding was that levels of Klan activity spiked around the time significant crimes involving African Americans occurred.
They found connections between police and Klan activity. They believe that many of Denton’s top leaders were either members of or sympathizers of the local Klavern.
And the reason for the population decrease? They believe some were abducted and lynched. Others fled the county in fear.
The student watchdogs are Emily Bowles, Hannah Stewart, Jessica Floyd and Micah Crittenden.
Finally, we lost my favorite local watchdog in 2019. Retired Dallas police Detective Jim Leavelle died Aug. 29 at age 99.
Leavelle was the detective wearing the light-colored Stetson who was handcuffed to Lee Harvey Oswald when Jack Ruby shot Oswald.
Leavelle is my favorite all-time Texan. He was a gentleman who told his story to countless audiences in the years that followed.
He knew his place in history, and he took that responsibility most seriously. He was also a crime-solving watchdog looking out for others in the truest sense of the word.
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