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Form letter causes 'stink' across county?

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

(Editor's note: My husband recently received one of the form letters from the Sheriff's Association of Texas. However, when apprised of its controversial nature, I had to dig his copy it out of the paper-recycling box. Hence, the lead sentence.)

On Feb. 24, letters went out to Bandera County residents that had some citizens up in arms, but just offered others more paper for their recycling efforts.

A mass mailing from the Sheriff's Association of Texas soliciting funds from local residents had been signed "Richard D. Smith Sr."
However, under the facsimile signature - and here's the rub - was the printed identifier "Sheriff Richard Smith, Sr., Bandera County."

The Smith-as-sheriff appellation appeared two more times on the document - as part of the letterhead at the top of the page and on a detachable stub that was to be returned to the association along with $25 annual dues. It also appeared on the first line of the envelope's return address in Austin.

In an interview on Monday, March 12, Smith disavowed any prior knowledge of the mailing and most especially that it was part of a nefarious scheme designed to pass himself off as an elected official.

Smith is one of six Republican candidates vying to become the county's top cop in the General Election this fall. Currently he serves as chief deputy and chief administrative officer for the Bandera County Sheriff's Office.

After the resignation of Weldon Tucker last May, commissioners declined to appoint an acting sheriff. Due to a state statute, the inaction enabled Smith to take over the administrative duties of the department.

Commissioners did not appoint anyone to the sheriff's position lest it give that person an unfair advantage during the primary election, now slated for May 29.

"I attended a training conference sponsored by the Sheriff's Association of Texas in July 2011 in Houston - one of 240 'sheriffs' who did. I signed in and I assume my signature was scanned and used on the form letter that was sent out to residents of Bandera County," Smith said.

During a telephone interview on Tuesday, March 13, Steve Westbrook, director of the Sheriff's Association of Texas offered a timeline of events that led up to mailing of the form letter.

"During our conference in July, a table was set up with signature cards for all registrants to sign for a membership drive in March," Westbrook said. "As an organization member, Richard signed the card, but we had no way to know he wasn't the Bandera County Sheriff. Usually when a sheriff resigns or dies, county commissioners appoint a new sheriff immediately."

According to Westbrook, a copy of the signature card was sent to Smith in October with an explanation that the scanned signature would go out, along with a letter soliciting memberships, to county citizens in the spring.

"In early February, we sent out a generic copy of the letter to all sheriffs," Westbrook said. However, as he explained, the generic letter did not state, "Richard Smith, Sheriff, Bandera County," but rather "John Wayne, Sheriff, Anywhere County."

"The letter was just for them to know what was going to be sent throughout the county," Westbrook continued. "The mailing also included a sample press release for media outlets."

After that, automation took over, he said. "It was a standardized deal and the same letter went out to counties all over Texas." Westbrook went on to say that the sheriff's association is primarily concerned with disseminating information and training in rural parts of the state and providing scholarships for both peace officers and children of peace officers. "We don't get involved in local politics. We don't even know who's running. In fact, we thought Texas had 254 sheriffs, now we know there's only 253."

For his part, Smith has been fielding calls from citizens asking if the letter was some sort of scam. "It isn't," he said. "The Sheriff's Association of Texas is a nonprofit organization that's recognized by the IRS and the office of the Texas Secretary of State."

Smith also provided the Courier with a copy of his registration to the conference, which clearly identified him as a chief deputy not sheriff.

That document is reprinted on page WHAT. "I can't make it any plainer than that," he said.

Concurring with Westbrook's summation of events, an elected county official surmised recently, "Texas has 254 counties and 253 have sheriffs.
Bandera County doesn't. Chief Deputy Smith went to a sheriff's conference, and that's where this letter came from. Computer-generated form letters like this don't make an exception for the one county that doesn't have a sheriff."

Smith agreed with both analyses, noting, "This is something I did not do on purpose. In fact, even if I had wanted to, I don't think I could have. The letter came from a computer database. I know that some poeple will raise a stink about this, but I'm hoping the citizens will understand what happened."