Judge in Paxton case prefers Collin County venue, but won’t commit

Posted: Feb 16, 2017 10:12 PM
Judge in Paxton case prefers Collin County venue, but won’t commit
Part 16 of 16 in the series The Problematic Paxton Prosecution

The judge in the fraud case of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Thursday he would prefer to keep the trial in Collin County, but did not commit to doing so.

“The court plans to keep the case in Collin County but will keep publicity under advisement,” visiting Tarrant County Judge George Gallagher said. The court would, he said, “at least try to choose a jury here.”

Gallagher’s comments came at the end of an almost two-hour hearing focusing on allegations that Paxton allies were trying to taint the local jury pool.

“I’m not concerned,” special prosecutor Kent Schaffer said after the hearing. “The judge will make the decision that he believes to be right. We’re going to try the case wherever it goes. … He could decide anything. This is his deal.”

AP File Photo/Eric Gay

VENUE UNDETERMIND:  In this July 29, 2015, file photo, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks during a hearing in Austin, Texas. The judge in Paxton’s fraud case has not decided if the trial will be moved out of Collin County.

Paxton’s team expressed a preference, but not much else.

“We really want to try the case here in Collin County,” lead Paxton attorney Dan Cogdell told reporters before exiting the courthouse. “The more I say, the less likely it is.”

Prosecutors aren’t backing down from their claim Paxton allies are trying to bias potential jurors. But the three witnesses they called in an attempt to support that claim all denied the charge.

CBS 11 reporter J.D. Miles said he was told by former Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum in early February the Paxton case was a political witch hunt. Miles told the court he was contacted by Jeff Blackard on Feb. 2 about talking to Santorum, then spoke with the two-time presidential candidate the next day. Blackard is the Collin County taxpayer who filed suit to stop hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments to the special prosecutors, alleging that the size of the payments violates state law.

Miles said he did not talk with Paxton or a formal representative of his legal team.

“I’m not part of any conspiracy or know about one,” he told Gallagher, while also denying that he tried to taint the jury pool. Miles also testified that probably 120,000 people saw his Santorum story on TV, while about 1,400 people had looked at the interview on CBS 11’s website. He could not say if any of them were among the 850,000 residents of Collin County.

The special prosecutors challenged Miles’ characterization.

“It’s not a coincidence that Jeff Blackard, who has sued us on behalf of every taxpayer in this county to shut us down and defund and derail this prosecution, calls up J.D. Miles to bring in his A-list buddy, Rick Santorum,” special prosecutor Brian Wice said after the session.

Former Houston TV reporter Wayne Dolcefino, who provided Watchdog.org with a copy of a Texas Rangers investigation report of Paxton’s alleged activities, also testified.

Dolcefino told the court he made the report public because he believed it fell under the state’s Public Information Act. He also denied trying to taint the Collin County jury pool, and said if he wanted to do that, he’d would have given the report to journalists in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Dolcefino testified he made the information public because no one was talking about the Rangers’ investigation, which he thought was “flimsy.”

He said the report would not have been released if he’d known it was illegal, and immediately told Cogdell what happened. Cogdell then told Gallagher. The judge said Cogdell wasn’t at fault.

Tom Dailey, business manager at Cumulus Media, whose radio stations aired six ads last fall highlighting Watchdog.org coverage of the Paxton case, testified that he didn’t know how many people heard the ads. He also said he had no idea whether Paxton had any involvement in the ads’ production.

One thing was settled Thursday. Prosecutors said Paxton will be tried separately on the two counts; first on the third-degree felony for not registering as a lobbyist, then on the first-degree securities fraud charges.

“The failure to register will take a couple days to try,” Schaffer said. “The securities fraud trial could take several weeks. It’s a lot more complex case.”

Defense attorneys said they preferred that the cases be tried together.

The first trial is scheduled for May 1, but that could slip if the judge rules that a change of venue is required.