Investigation into allegations against Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom dismissed
Published date; Dec. 28th, 2019
A presiding judge has dismissed an investigation into whether Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom improperly signed off on affidavits to receive salary supplements from the state for judicial duties, court documents show.
Presiding Judge David Peeples of San Antonio issued an order Friday dismissing the court of inquiry against Gossom, according to court documents.
A court of inquiry is an investigation into whether there has been wrongdoing.
Peeples wrote in his six-page order that he was ending the inquiry rather than ultimately putting a jury in the position of deciding the meaning of the state law related to the judicial stipends.
“The court believes the proper course is to give the Legislature opportunity to provide guidance as it desires,” Peeples said.
‘It had to run its course’
Throughout the months-long process, Gossom has maintained that he has done nothing improper.
Gossom said the judge’s decision was “a nice belated Christmas present.”
“I felt it would always come out this way,” he said Saturday. “It had to run its course.”
At issue were salary stipends of $25,200 that Gossom received annually from 2016 through 2018, court records show.
To receive them, he signed affidavits swearing at least 40 percent of the functions he performs as county judge are judicial, according to court documents.
The salary supplements from the state are in addition to his county-funded pay of about $100,000 a year.
Gossom indicated Saturday that he did not believe all of the judicial duties he performs have been considered as such.
“I think it’s all in the eye of the beholder,” he said.
Gossom’s attorney, James P. Allison of Austin, said in a statement that the county judge “has continuously performed all the judicial functions of his office, including more than his share of juvenile proceedings.”
Gossom has appreciated the support from the community.
“It was very reassuring to have both friends and total strangers come up to me and say, ‘We know who you are, but we’re not worried about this, and we’re praying for you,’ ” he said.
Gossom is ready to get on with county business.
“Let’s let this go and move forward in doing positive things,” he said.
How the inquiry started
Retired 78th District Judge Barney Fudge raised the issue of Gossom’s salary stipends and affidavits earlier this year, court records show. Fudge, who retired Sept. 30, requested the court of inquiry.
Fudge alleged that Gossom improperly signed the affidavits to obtain salary stipends for judicial duties he didn’t perform, court documents showed.
“I’m disappointed,” Fudge said Saturday afternoon about Peeples’ decision.
But Fudge’s opinion that Gossom does not spend 40 percent of his time accomplishing “judicial functions” hasn’t changed, Fudge added Saturday.
He said Gossom put forth a defense that the law regarding the judicial stipends was vague and unenforceable, and Peeples agreed.
Fudge was referring to Gossom’s previous attempts to get the court of inquiry dismissed.
In general, such a law is void, Fudge said.
“Since the pertinent statute has been judicially declared to be vague and unenforceable, I will consider what action would be required to have the statute voided,” Fudge said.
This section of the online story has been updated with additional comments from Fudge, who preferred to read the order to dismiss before commenting further.
Allison said he was “fully confident that Judge Gossom would be exonerated” and that the inquiry had been “hastily convened.”
Why was the inquiry dismissed?
Peeples detailed his reasons for dismissing the probe in Friday’s order, noting that the case highlighted difficulties with the law and that similar controversies might arise around Texas.
About 215 of the county judges in the Lone Star State’s 254 counties claim the judicial stipend annually, he wrote.
But the state hasn’t appointed anyone to review the affidavits to obtain the stipends or evaluate their truthfulness, Peeples wrote.
Plus, there’s no guidance on how to calculate the percentage of judicial work performed by a county judge, he wrote.
In addition, the law on the judicial stipends is vague, and before a person can be prosecuted, a statute must clearly describe what conduct is supposed to be avoided or performed, Peeples wrote.
Up to the Legislature
Peeples did not want to put a jury in the position of figuring all that out when it is really the Legislature’s job, so he dismissed the case against Gossom, according to his motion.
He also specified that his decision to dismiss was not a binding precedent for any other counties.
Peeples wrote that it pertained only to Gossom and those particular three years he received the stipend — not future years in Wichita County.
Gossom said the state House passed legislation to give the salary supplement to all county judges regardless of their judicial duties during the last Legislature.
But the Senate didn’t take it up, he said.
Gossom said there are issues the Legislature should put ahead of dealing with the judicial salary supplements, which would take some real effort.
Legal bills coming due
On Aug. 19, the Wichita County Commissioners Court approved a motion to retain counsel to represent Gossom and pick up the tab for his defense.
It is unclear how much the cost will ultimately be for taxpayers for the services of Allison, Bass & Magee.
The firm’s rates range from $275 to $300 per hour for attorneys’ services, $150 an hour for paralegals and $150 an hour for travel time, according to Gossom’s legal contract.
Gossom said Saturday that he thinks the county will likely receive a bill from the law firm representing him in the next 30 days.
He said lawyers don’t always bill very quickly, and the firm did not require him to put down a retainer.
An open records request the Times Record News filed in October with the Wichita County District Attorney’s Office sought a tally of any payments the county had made to date for the county judge’s legal representation.
County officials responded that no bills had been received from the law firm representing Gossom since he hired them July 24.
A quick history of the inquiry
Fudge filed a May 29 statement in 78th District Court contending the only judicial duties the county judge performed were presiding at juvenile detention hearings.
Peeples ordered the court of inquiry to begin Sept. 12 and appointed two Tarrant County assistant district attorneys to investigate, court records show.
But Gossom’s request to a Fort Worth appeals court temporarily put the inquiry on hold, according to court documents.
The Second Court of Appeals ultimately denied the request to dismiss the investigation on Oct. 21, court records showed.
Peebles dismissed the probe on the recommendation of the Tarrant County prosecutors, he wrote in his order.
In other Headlines, Texomas Runs with; Officials dismiss Wichita Co. Judge Woody Gossom inquiry
WICHITA FALLS (KFDX/KJTL) — Wichita County Judge Woody Gossom is breathing a sigh of relief Saturday night after a senior administrative judge dismissed the court of inquiry into Gossom’s conduct.
A late Christmas gift is what Gossom is calling the dismissal of a conduct inquiry originally filed by former 78th District Judge Barney Fudge.
“We had been given a hint by the judge that it would be coming in this way but my wife and I always talk ‘don’t count your chickens before they hatch’ so until we saw the signed order we couldn’t say much of anything,” Gossom said.
Now he’s seen the signed order, an order in his favor.
Fudge’s complaint filed in June 2019 stated that a county judge is entitled to a salary supplement equal to 18% of the salary if at least 40% of the functions are judicial in nature.
Allegations against Gossom said that the only judicial functions he performs are presiding over juvenile detention hearings, alleging Gossom’s judicial functions do not achieve the 40% requirement.
“When you look at that process and at the end of it if they had said ‘well we think there’s cause here’ then that’s an immediate arrest and then you bond out, that would’ve been very significant,” Gossom said.
According to the dismissal order, two Tarrant Co. attorneys interviewed witnesses, examined documents and researched the “sparse” Texas law in the area.
The order said the attorneys performed their duties without delay and with a high level of professionalism and found there’s no law providing guidance on how to calculate the percentage of judicial work.
“That’s what we’ve all thought because it’s in the eye of the beholder what is a judicial duty and what isn’t and so of the 15-20 things I listed, some people might say ‘well that’s not judicial,’” Gossom said.
Gossom said he agrees with the judge who signed this order, believing this goes well beyond the authority of the courts and that the law is too vague.
“Judge Peeples nailed it and said, we could’ve let this go to a jury but in a recent 2018 court action, the Supreme Court of Texas, he said it was the duty of the legislature and not the courts to clarify their laws,” Gossom said.
Half a year wondering what would come of this, but Gossom said he’s thankful for all the people who have supported him throughout this process.
As for now, Gossom said he hasn’t heard from Judge Fudge and he isn’t expecting to.
Gossom’s attorney James P. Allison released this statement:
“We are pleased that Judge Peeples has dismissed the ill-advised court of inquiry. Judge Woodrow Gossom has continuously performed all the judicial functions of his office, including more than his share of juvenile proceedings. It is unfortunate that this proceeding was hastily convened without a full review. We were fully confident that Judge Gossom would be exonerated and appreciate the confidence placed in him by his fellow judges and the citizens of Wichita County.”
JUDGE WOODY GOSSOM’S ATTORNEY, JAMES P. ALLISON