Gag order in Upshur public comment case; 100 turn out to support indicted officials
Dec. 31, 2010 at 7 p.m.
GILMER - About 100 people showed up Friday on the lawn of the Upshur County Courthouse to express support for an indicted county judge, sheriff and county commissioner. They had plenty to say.
The indicted officials, however, may as well have had duct tape across their mouths after a district court judge Friday morning issued a gag order prohibiting them and the district attorney who indicted them from discussing the case.
"This is Upshur County politics at its rawest and at its stupidest," said Larry Craig, a Gilmer resident who said he was on the lawn on a rainy morning to show support for County Judge Dean Fowler, Sheriff Anthony Betterton and Precinct 3 Commissioner Lloyd Crabtree. "This is just wrong."
The three officials were indicted and charged with official oppression and abuse of official capacity, Upshur County District Attorney Billy Byrd confirmed Thursday evening.
The charges were related to the Upshur County court voting Sept. 30 to remove public comment from its meeting agendas and subsequent removal of a protester from a meeting.
After the vote, silent protesters led by Pritchett resident Jimmy Caughron began appearing at meetings with duct tape over their mouths, sitting in the front row to express their displeasure with the court.
At a Nov. 30 meeting, Fowler told Upshur County Sheriff's Deputy Larry Fortson to remove Caughron from the court. Caughron filed a complaint with Byrd.
After turning themselves in Thursday, the three indicted officials were fingerprinted and booked into jail, then released on personal recognizance bonds.
Commissioners had voted earlier Thursday to return public comment to their meeting agendas.
On Friday morning, District Judge Lauren Parish signed the gag order prohibiting Fowler, Betterton, Crabtree, their attorneys and Byrd from speaking with the media. The order said out-of-court statements posed a threat to the defense and the prosecution.
Before the order was in place, Byrd did not comment on the cases beyond confirming the indictments and charges.
Caughron said Friday he was told not to make any public comment and defer all questions to Byrd. Caughron is not bound by the gag order, and it was unclear who advised him against commenting.
Attorneys Todd Tefteller and Robert Davis are representing the defendants, and neither could not provide details of the case Friday.
But Tefteller spoke to the News-Journal on Thursday evening before the gag order was in place.
He said the grand juror who signed the indictments against the three elected officials paid filing fees for the opponent in Fowler's recent campaign for re-election. Tefteller would not disclose the juror's name.
"This is broader than the county judge and the sheriff and the commissioners court," he said. "This is going to do more to harm law enforcement than anything else. What kind of a world do we live in where you indict the sheriff behind his back? Where you indict the county judge behind his back with somebody on a panel that's paying his opponent to run against him?"
The gag order didn't stop people on the courthouse lawn from voicing their opinions and support of Fowler, Betterton or Crabtree - or all three.
"I'm here in support of the sheriff because we've got the best sheriff''s department now that Upshur County's ever had, and I've been here 67 years," said Jerry Fenton of Gilmer.
"And our district attorney is a good district attorney, but our commissioners court stinks. They're in the paper every two or three weeks, and I've had people call me from Dallas asking what's going on in Upshur County. It got out of hand with the duct tape. They should have put the gavel down in the commissioners court meetings."
More than a dozen people from the sheriff's office were at the impromptu demonstration, along with other county officials, including incoming commissioners Cole Hefner and Mike Spencer. Both take office this month. Also in the crowd were County Clerk Peggy LaGrone and Commissioner Joe "Buddy" Ferguson, who showed up on their last day in office.
"Upshur County is losing on this," Ferguson said. "I think our district attorney is overstepping his powers and trying to run Upshur County Commissioners Court."