Denton Central Appraisal District

The Denton Central Appraisal District building in Denton.

The Denton Central Appraisal District has sued to block the release of documents related to an investigation into its management practices, citing in part a U.S. Department of Justice interest in the case.

The lawsuit was filed June 5 in a Travis County district court against the Texas Attorney General’s office. The action was triggered by the office’s ruling in what otherwise appeared to be a routine open records request.

The appraisal district’s attorney did not return requests for comment Wednesday. Court documents stated that the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Texas had an interest in the case. The documents did not specify whether the federal law enforcement agency’s interest in the local appraisal district’s management was civil or criminal.

According to district spokeswoman Davilyn Walston, "if an investigation exists, but nothing has been filed, it would be considered an on-going investigation and per DOJ policy we are not able to comment."

A month after the Denton Record-Chronicle reported that the appraisal district’s board of directors hired a law firm to investigate district management practices, Sherelle Black, a Denton County resident, made an open records request seeking “all documents, memos and emails pertaining to the district’s board of directors retaining the firm of Fanning Harper Martinson Brandt & Kutchin.”

Most of the court case pivots on alleged inconsistencies in the attorney general’s review of attorney billing statements and related emails, which could reveal information otherwise protected by attorney-client privilege.

The appraisal district retained the firm in April 2018 and the investigation was still ongoing as late as January. At least part of the investigation included a confidential survey of appraisal district employees asking their knowledge of improper relationships between employees and property owners as well as other matters of public integrity.

The Record-Chronicle recently uncovered records of a religious property tax exemption that district officials discovered sometime after April 2018 had been “erroneously applied.” The newspaper recently requested additional records of other religious property tax exemptions, but the district has not yet responded to that request.

In January, the district’s board of directors adopted a new employee policy that prohibited moonlighting and added requirements meant to shore up ethical behavior among the district’s many licensed real estate appraisers.

However, the board did not prohibit employees from seeking public office with the policy change. The Texas Legislature outlawed it several months later. The district’s chief appraiser, Rudy Durham, must leave his post as mayor of Lewisville by the end of the year in order to keep his job.

According to court documents, the appraisal district said it provided documents and materials related to Black’s open records request but forwarded other documents for an attorney general’s opinion.

Black could not be reached for comment.

The attorney general’s office answered the lawsuit on June 24 with a general denial of the district’s allegations. A hearing has not yet been scheduled in the case.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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