District Attorney Rob Christian confirmed this week that his office is conducting an investigation centered around the Hood County Appraisal District and has been in contact with “a couple of other agencies” about the situation.
The investigation involves an alleged violation of the Open Meetings Act and two possible Class A misdemeanor crimes tied to a property appraisal protest in which the Appraisal Review Board (ARB) sided in favor of the appellant and against the Appraisal District.
The allegations are coming from Joe Polino, a sworn peace officer with 30 years of experience who is in the middle of his second two-year term on the ARB. He serves as vice chairman.
Polino’s claims are centered around ARB chair Rick Huber, chief appraiser Greg Stewart and appraiser Jerad Gabbert.
Christian declined to provide any other details about the investigation, or whether he foresees any charges being filed.
Stewart provided a written statement to the Hood County News. He indicated that there was no violation of the Open Meetings Act based on his “clear recollection” of the night in question, and said that he is not aware of any confidential information having been shared with the ARB in violation of law.
Gabbert returned a phone call from the HCN on Wednesday afternoon, but stated: “I have no comment at this time.”
Late Wednesday night, Huber sent an email to the HCN in response to a voicemail message left on his home phone. In the email, Huber declined to comment, stating that he had been asked by investigator Robert Young not to discuss the case.
Polino said that he had a duty – particularly as a sworn peace officer – to go to the authorities with what he said are illegal prejudgment agreements between Huber and Appraisal District employees regarding protest hearings on property appraisals.
Taxpayers are forced to live by laws that dictate how their properties are appraised, yet some involved in those appraisals are breaking the law, he said.
“The Appraisal District , they’re the county IRS,” said Polino, who was the county’s director of development and compliance from 2008 to 2010 and is currently city administrator for the city of Reno in Parker County.
Polino came to the Hood County News about the situation several weeks ago, before meeting with Christian and Young. Polino’s attorney, Walter W. Leonard, accompanied him to the meeting at the D.A.’s office. At their request, the HCN held off on publishing a story until Christian made the determination to investigate.
“Mr. Polino is extremely credible,” Leonard said. “He’s had umpteen years in law enforcement. He’s not someone who just calls up and wants to complain. If he brings this to someone’s attention, it’s a serious matter.”
open meetings act
Polino claims that the Open Meetings Act was violated when Huber addressed the Appraisal District’s board of directors at their May 9 meeting.
The board of directors is a different group from the ARB.
Polino said that Huber had complained to him that ARB members are paid less than those in many other counties. Polino said he researched that claim for Huber, found it to be true and compiled a report for Huber to take to the board of directors.
Polino said that Huber left him a voice mail message the night of May 9, after the board meeting had concluded.
“He enthusiastically said he had met with the board and they seemed very receptive,” the peace officer recounted.
Polino said he later became aware that Huber’s presentation was not a posted agenda item for that meeting, nor was there a closed session item listed on the agenda to discuss “personnel matters.”
A closed session item on personnel matters could have indicated that the discussion had taken place without any members of the public present, but still within legal boundaries.
Polino said he filed an Open Records request to get the meeting minutes. Nothing about the discussion was reflected.
Puzzled, Polino said he asked Huber about it in the presence of another ARB member and an employee in the Appraisal District office.
“He stated that this meeting did not take place during the regular meeting, but instead afterward in private with no members of the public (present),” Polino stated.
“I was astonished. I said, ‘Are you telling me that you met with a quorum and the chief appraiser and, during the course of this meeting, you discussed Appraisal District business? And his response was, ‘Yes,’” said Polino.
“I told him, ‘Based upon what you just told me, Rick, you and the chief appraiser and the board have violated the law.’”
Polino said he then turned to the ARB member and the employee and said, “You have witnessed what the chairman has said.”
Here is what Stewart wrote about that board meeting in his statement to the HCN:
“It is my clear recollection that Mr. Huber (chairman of the ARB) appeared at a regular meeting of the Appraisal District Board of Directors and spoke to the Board during the public comment portion of the agenda.
“At that time, he provided information concerning the compensation paid to the Hood ARB members and the compensation paid to other ARB members in other counties.
“At the next regularly scheduled meeting of the Appraisal District Board of Directors, an item concerning the ARB compensation was placed on the agenda. At that meeting the Board discussed the ARB compensation schedule but no motion was made and no action taken.”
Polino provided to the HCN a copy of the meeting agenda for the May 9 meeting, as well as the meeting minutes, both of which he said he obtained through Open Records.
The meeting minutes reflect that Stewart was there, as well as board members Walter Baldree, Brian Thomas and Terry Johnson. Micky Shearon and Tony Smith were not present.
The minutes further state: “Also present was Kathy Williams from the firm of Snow, Garrett, Williams & Company, and Kent Allison from the firm of Pritchard & Abbott.”
There is no mention of Huber’s presence, nor do the minutes reflect anyone addressing the board during the public comments portion of the meeting.
Polino views with suspicion the fact that the ARB compensation issue was on the agenda for the next board meeting, on July 11, after he had confronted Huber and after he had filed Open Records requests to obtain the meeting agenda and minutes.
The minutes for the July 11 meeting state: “The increase in the compensation for the Appraisal Review Board Members died for lack of motion.”
That, too, is suspect, said Polino. While it is not uncommon for a motion to die for lack of a second, rarely does an issue die because no motion was made at all. Someone, after all, placed it on the agenda.
The two issues that Polino told the Hood County News were Class A misdemeanor crimes involved comments allegedly made by Huber to Stewart and, in a separate but related incident, to Gabbert. The alleged comments involved the same tax appraisal protest.
Polino did not disclose details of the property or the nature of the protest. He explained that, while he was free under the law to share all details of the incidents with the D.A., he could not share them with anyone else without violating the law.
Polino said that Stewart became “brusque” and “accusatory” after the ARB ruled against the Appraisal District and threatened to take legal action against the Board in an effort to reverse their decision. He stated that Stewart told Board members that he intends to appraise the property the same way next year, which may mean a second protest.
“Huber says to him, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll sustain and uphold the Appraisal District’s value next year,’” Polino said. “I turned to Huber and I said to him, ‘Do you realize that you and the chief appraiser have just broken the law?’”
Polino said that Appraisal District employees are not supposed to do anything to influence ARB members. He said he feels that Stewart was trying to intimidate the Board.
The Texas Tax Code prohibits “ex parte” communications with ARB members. The code states:
“An ARB member commits a Class A misdemeanor offense if the member communicates with the chief appraiser, CAD (County Appraisal District) employee, or a member of the CAD board of directors for which the ARB is established in violation of Tax Code Section 41.66(f).”
It further states that a chief appraiser or another CAD employee “commits a Class A misdemeanor” if they communicate with an ARB member “with the intent to influence a decision by an ARB member in the member’s capacity as an ARB member.”
In his email to the HCN, Stewart did not specifically address whether he had broken the law in regard to the protest hearing, but said this:
“Regarding litigation with the ARB, the Texas Tax Code provides remedies to the property owner and the appraisal district for appealing ARB decisions. The remedy provided to the appraisal district is to file suit in District Court (see Tax Code Section 42.02).”
Referring to Huber’s alleged promise to side next time with the Appraisal District, Polino said that any such pre-judgment is illegal. He said that when Huber made the comment, he turned to the same ARB member and the same Appraisal District employee who had witnessed the Open Meetings Act confrontation and told them again that they were witnesses to what had just transpired.
Polino said that prior to every protest hearing, each ARB member is required to sign an affidavit attesting that they have no prior knowledge of the appeal that is coming before them and have not discussed it. Those affidavits go into the file with the appeal, he stated.
Polino said that a few days after the communication between Stewart and Huber, during a break in ARB hearings, appraiser Gabbert came into the room and told ARB members that he wanted to give them some additional information that he uncovered through research.
“He said that, based on that, he was going to put the same valuation on the property again. But he started telling us confidential information that we weren’t supposed to know,” said the ARB vice chairman.
“The law says they’re not supposed to do that. At that point, Huber says to him, ‘That’s okay. Don’t worry about it because we’ve already decided to rule (in the Appraisal District’s favor).”
Again, Polino said, he informed those who heard the exchange that they were witnesses to a crime.
“When you’ve got highly trained people who work for the Appraisal District and the chairman of the ARB breaking the law, then the deck is stacked against the taxpayer,” Polino stated. “I could not continue without coming forward.”
taxpayers in the headlights
Polino said that ARB members receive strict training regarding the law, and that they must follow the law at all times.
He said that he feels sympathy for taxpayers who show up for a protest hearing and have the intimidating experience of dealing with trained Appraisal District employees who project data onto a big screen.
“Some people, you can tell, are living from week to week, paycheck to paycheck,” Polino said. “They barely had the money to pay for food and were looking for relief. Even though our hearts were with them, we took an oath to follow the law. And then these guys with their back door deals were breaking the law.
“It has to be an even playing field. And when we have that kind of situation, it’s not.”
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