Although suspended Wise County Commissioner Terry Ross pleaded guilty to abuse of official capacity in district court Monday, his future in office is still uncertain.
Ross does not plan to resign. He told the Messenger Tuesday that he will seek to reclaim the office from which he has been suspended for more than a year.
The plea agreement between Ross and the prosecution gave him $500 restitution and 180 days in jail, probated for one year. It does not, however, officially remove him from office or prohibit him from holding office.
A civil hearing will determine whether he gets his job back.
Ross was suspended in August 2012, two months after former Texas Ranger Lane Akin, acting as a citizen, filed a petition for his removal citing incompetency and official misconduct. The petition came on the heels of indictments for abuse of official capacity greater than $20 and less than $500, a Class B misdemeanor, and tampering with governmental records.
This felony, and a second felony – theft of $500 to $1,500 by a public servant – on which he was indicted in October 2012, were dismissed as part of Monday’s plea agreement. If Ross had been convicted by a jury of either charge, he would have been automatically removed from office.
Instead he will face a jury of his peers, which will decide if he remains in office or is removed.
County Attorney James Stainton will represent the state. Jerry Loftin of Fort Worth, who also represented Ross in the criminal proceedings, is listed as Ross’ counsel for the civil case.
If that jury decides Ross should remain in office, he will resume his post as Precinct 4 commissioner and be awarded back pay, which by the end of the week will total $93,493.50.
Ross’ term ends next year, and according to Wise County Republican Party Chair Allen Williamson, he is eligible to file for re-election even while suspended.
As of Tuesday, Stainton was not able to indicate when the hearing would take place.
“The county deserves it to be as expedient as it can be, but I’m not going to halfway throw it together,” he said. “It’s disrespectful to the county and people who have asked me to do this.
“I do appreciate that (Ross) has taken responsibility for what he did,” Stainton said. “That has to be the first stop. That has to happen first.”
Stainton said he would take a little time to review the file and put his case together.
According to election code, even if a jury removes Ross from office, that does not prohibit him from running again.
Interim commissioner Glenn Hughes will continue to serve in the Precinct 4 post until the civil hearing.
Almost 100 potential jurors and more than 20 possible witnesses filled the first and second floors of the Wise County Courthouse in Decatur Monday morning. They waited in the hallways and various courthouse offices for more than an hour before being released when Ross signed a plea agreement just before 10 a.m.
He pleaded guilty before District Judge Roger Towery to abuse of official capacity greater than $20 and less than $500, a Class B misdemeanor. The other two charges, both felonies, were dismissed.
“Mr. Ross, are you pleading guilty freely and voluntarily?” asked Towery. “Are you pleading guilty only because you are guilty and for no other reason?”
“Except for a plea agreement …” Towery added.
Ross still didn’t answer.
Towery rephrased the question. “Are you pleading guilty because you are guilty of the offense?”
Ross said nothing.
“The misdemeanor offense …” Loftin said, prompting Ross, to which he finally responded “yes.”
Ross’ attorney, was pleased with the outcome.
“It’s a misdemeanor, and that’s all there ever really was anyway,” Loftin said. “It’s a misdemeanor, one step above a traffic ticket.”
The commissioner was indicted in May 2012 after allegedly using county materials and the time of county employees to build a playhouse for his grandchildren. It was a Christmas gift.
The playhouse was seized in February 2012 as part of the investigation that began in late 2011. Ross was temporarily suspended six months later, and the trial was set for Oct. 30, 2012. In the meantime, Ross was arrested on theft charges for allegedly building three grubbing plows on county time – two for personal use – with material belonging to the county. The new arrest played a part in delaying the trial, and Ross was indicted on this charge in December of 2012.
The trial was delayed two more times, including in April of this year when District Attorney Greg Lowery recused his office after being reminded he represented Ross in a criminal matter 16 years ago.
Ross told the Messenger Tuesday that he had rejected a previous plea agreement in the course of the lengthy negotiations and court proceedings. He declined to comment on the details of the previous offer, but said Monday’s plea “wasn’t the same as the last one.”
This time, he accepted.
Prosecutor Robert Gill, Tarrant County assistant district attorney, said “an agreement was reached that the evidence supported.”
Loftin said previously that he may file other civil suits on Ross’ behalf, but none had been filed as of Tuesday.
Ross said he didn’t know if any more civil suits would be filed.
“We haven’t got into any details on any of it yet,” he said.
Former Precinct 4 Foreman Roy Teague was also arrested in October 2012 for theft of $500 to $1,500 by a public servant because he allegedly took home one of the grubbing plows.
Assistant District Attorney Tim Cole said Teague was not indicted on this charge because they needed him to testify against Ross.
“The deal that we made with him was because we wanted him and needed him in the case against Terry. We agreed not to pursue charges in return for his cooperation,” Cole said.
Cole said Teague is expected to plead guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge for which he was arrested in September 2012.
That case can now move forward since the Ross criminal case has concluded.