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2014-02-20

'No contest' plea copped on coercion charge

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Pictured: Karen Ripley, who was the target of "coercion against a candidate," currently serves as vice president of the Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District.




An incident that began during an election of Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District (BCRAGD) in 2011 ended on Jan. 29, 2014 with a plea of no contest to a charge of coercion against a candidate, a Class A misdemeanor.
At that time, defendant Karen Brown, acting as her own attorney, accepted a plea bargain, which included a six-month term of deferred adjudication probation. Bandera County Attorney Janna Lindig prosecuted the case.
The candidate, Karen Ripley, currently serves as vice president of BCRAGD. According to Ripley, prior to the May 2011 election, Brown had tried to coerce her into withdrawing as an unopposed candidate for Precinct 2 Director. Brown had accused the veteran real estate broker of attempting to benefit from the purchase of property on FM 3240 for new BCRAGD headquarters. For years, Ripley has denied Brown's allegations, and no charges were ever brought against her.
Resign or else!
In a complaint filed in Bandera County Court on April 4, 2013, Ripley contended that in an email and attached flyer sent to her in early April 2011, Brown demanded she resign from the river authority board prior to the quarterly meeting, slated for April 7 of that year.
In the email, Brown stated: "Please review the attached mailer. As you can imagine, the fallout from wide spread circulation of such a document will be significant and long lasting. You can avert any more damage to your business and reputation by tendering your permanent resignation as Director of the BCRAGD-for the remainder of this term and the next."
The email continued: "If you decide to remain on the board, please understand that every person with whom you conduct business, all media outlets, and every tax payer in Bandera County, will immediately be fully apprised regarding your criminal actions."
The flyer, Brown indicated, would be distributed to a list of organizations, agencies, newspapers, television stations, governing bodies and taxing agencies - from the Medina Lake Second Line Dancers to the county commissioners and judge.
The flyer attached to the email was titled "Ripley Ripoff Exposed: Water District Director Karen Ripley foiled in attempt to rip off taxpayers for $6,000."
Charges unfounded
Among other allegations, the flyer stated that Ripley "currently faces charges of Conflict of Interest and other ethical violations from TREC, the Texas Real Estate Commission. The lead investigator feels disciplinary action is imminent."
Investigating Brown's contentions, Courier staff writer Carolyn Edwards contacted Kerry Galvin, director of Standards and Enforcement for TREC.
At that time, Galvin told Edwards, "I would be surprised that the lead investigator had made such a statement since all investigators do is accumulate evidence. Decisions to take disciplinary action are made by me or by our attorney here at TREC headquarters." Galvin also clarified that the TREC handles "complaints," not "charges."
Subsequently, the TREC judged all complaints against Ripley as unfounded and no disciplinary action was taken. Brown was listed on both complaints filed against Ripley with the TREC. Others who signed complaints included several local real estate agents and Jim Hannah, now a member of Bandera City Council.
Demand for
withdrawal
More problematically, however, the 2011 flyer demanded that Ripley: "... withdraw from the upcoming election for directors." It continued: "We need directors who can be trusted to uphold their Oath of Office."
According to the complaint, Ripley took this as a direct threat that she should not seek re-election and should withdraw from the election.
In her complaint, she cited Chapter 2.054 of the Texas Election Code, Coercion Against Candidacy Prohibited, which states: "In an election that may be subject to this subchapter, a person commits an offence if by intimidation or by means of coercion the person influences or attempts to influence a person to ... withdraw as a candidate."
Texas Penal Code Section 1.07 defines coercion as a threat, however communicated - in this case by email and distribution of the flyer.
Brown was arrested on June 4, 2013 and after entering a not guilty plea, was released on a $2,000 personal recognizance bond. Mediation was concluded on Jan. 27, 2014 and two days later Brown pleaded no contest, a plea which is not subject to appeal. If found guilty, she could have faced up to a year in jail and-or a fine not to exceed $4,000.
As part of the plea bargain, Brown was given six months deferred adjudication with probation fees of $40 per month, a fine of $150, court costs of $232, $300 restitution to Bandera County and 24 hours of community service.
'Circumvent
democratic process'
Brown declined to comment on the outcome of the case.
In her statement about the judicial resolution, Ripley said, "Karen Brown violated a specific election law against coercion. Without laws against coercion and intimidation, the democratic process can be circumvented by a group or an individual. This can and will determine public policy by operating outside the democratic principles of citizens participating in free elections, as mentioned in the United States Constitution."
Ripley continued, "Having said that, what Ms. Brown and her cohorts seem to be advocating is 'we don't need no stinkin' election, we'll tell you what's best for you.' Consider the fact that no citizen in Precinct 2 filed or participated in any complaint and even though I ran unopposed, more than 100 citizens came out to cast a vote for my unopposed re-election. To me, that kind of 'public outcry' truly defines all the freedoms we cherish in our republic."
When asked if she believed she had been targeted specifically, Ripley said, "With me out of the race and four places up for election, it was hoped - if all the candidates Water Matters endorsed had won - a majority of the seats would fall under their control. With me running unopposed, however, this could never have happened."
Does Water Matters
still matter?
She also added, "Water Matters had a hit list and I still have emails that prove it. If this case had gone to trial, those emails would have come to light."
Precinct 2 Commission Bobby Harris recalled that Hannah, who is associated with Water Matters, had contacted him to see if Harris could suggest a candidate to oppose Ripley. "I told him, 'Hell, no. She's doing a great job for her constituents. Nobody's going to run against her," Harris said.
When the brouhaha began, Brown was also associated with the local Google group. On its website, Water Matters is described as "a group of Bandera County taxpayers concerned about our water supply and the operations of our local water board, the Bandera County River Authority and Groundwater District." The last post on the website was October 2010, which might indicate the group is now defunct.
To a query about Water Matters, former BCRAGD Director Lee Kneupper replied to the Courier in an April 17, 2011 email: "The Bandera County Water Matters Googlegroup is an information and discussion forum. Anybody can join."
Kneupper resigned from BCRAGD in July 2012 amid allegations he had violated the Texas Open Meetings Act. This resulted directly from myriad emails he had sent to members of Bandera Water Matters, in addition to emails he had sent directly to river authority directors. These emails apparently constituted an illegal "walking quorum."
Last word
Ripley thanked her constituents for their letters and calls of support. "Fortunately, the people I represent understood what was going on," she said. "The only thing the water board wants to do is save the county's water for everyone. Some of us want to accomplish something and others just want to throw up obstacles."