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Panola County sheriff arrested, charged in corruption investigation

By Becky Barlish bbarlish@news-journal.com
March 1, 2013 at 10 p.m.


CARTHAGE - Two months after being sworn into office, Panola County Sheriff Ron Clinton was arrested late Thursday in a public corruption investigation involving alleged theft, abuse of power and fraud.

After being taken into custody by Texas Rangers and the FBI, he was released by 10 p.m. Thursday from the Panola County Jail after posting $50,000 in bonds, county records indicated.

Clinton could not be reached Friday for comment.

According to an arrest warrant affidavit sworn Thursday by Texas Ranger Brent Davis, the charges stem from expenses related to travel to a new sheriff school in December in Austin and Clinton's misuse of county funds and abuse of his authority to repay the expenses.

After failing to account for a cash advance as requested Jan. 10 by the county auditor, the affidavit says, Clinton requested funds from the department's seizure and forfeiture fund to cover the expense, but was denied. The next day, Jan. 11, he received $1,000 from the department's confidential informant fund "to pay an informant," according to the warrant.

"On the same date," the warrant said, "Sheriff Clinton repaid the outstanding balance of $810.58 in the same monetary denomination as the (confidential informant) fund to the Panola County Treasurer's Office."

An audit of the confidential informant fund found a receipt for the $1,000 with an illegible informant signature, no witness signature and Clinton's signature, the warrant said.

Pressed by Rangers to provide details, Clinton provided the name of a confidential informant.

When Rangers found and interviewed him, the informant said Clinton had "asked him to meet with a Texas Ranger and tell him that (the informant) received $1,000." In return, the informant said Clinton said he would try to help the informant with a probation issue.

Realizing the informant wasn't covering for him, Davis said in the warrant, the sheriff had the informant brought to the sheriff's office to provide a written statement that the Rangers and FBI had forced him to lie.

The charges Clinton faces, according to a spokeswoman with the Department of Public Safety, are tampering with a government record, abuse of official capacity and theft by a public servant.

An official said an evacuation about 4:20 p.m. Thursday at the Panola County Courthouse was unrelated to the arrest. County employees and residents conducting business at the courthouse were told to leave with no explanation by two uniformed Panola County Sheriff's Office deputies.

Chief Deputy Kevin Lake said Friday the evacuation was part of an emergency drill that took place late in the day when business at the courthouse was winding down.

"It was very bad timing, but it is not related to (the sheriff's arrest)," Lake said.

He said the sheriff was arrested about five hours later, about 9:20 p.m. Clinton's arrest and release appeared in online jail records about 10 p.m.

On Friday, Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson issued a prepared statement saying, "The criminal district attorney's office was and is unaware of any reason for, and received no notice of, the early courthouse closure."

Due to the pending criminal charges, Davidson said, his office on Thursday afternoon had prepared a notice of appointment of special prosecutor, naming D. Matt Bingham, the criminal district attorney of Smith County, and four of his assistants to serve as special prosecutors in connection with the investigation and prosecution of criminal actions and civil removal actions against the sheriff.

Clinton was overwhelmingly elected sheriff in November. He replaced longtime lawman Jack Ellett, who retired after 24 years as the county's sheriff.

Until his election, Clinton had been a captain with the sheriff's office, having served third in command since May.

Before his move to the sheriff's office, Clinton was a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission officer for 24 years until retiring in 2011.

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