A frequent critic of Denton local government whose felony bribery indictment helped trigger statewide reforms of Texas grand juries has died. Bob Clifton, a retired businessman who died late Monday afternoon, was 79.
Born Aug. 24, 1940, to Robert T. Clifton, Sr., and Kenneth Pivis Clifton in Bellevue, Bob Clifton spent his early childhood in Denton before his father, an industrial arts teacher, joined the U.S. Navy and served as an intelligence officer during World War II. The family later moved to Wichita Falls where Clifton began a brief career in broadcasting, working at KWFT radio while he was still in high school.
He attended North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas, and worked at KDNT radio before moving to South Dakota to take a new job in television. After a year as the station’s weatherman, he moved back to Texas and eventually became the personal secretary to a Texas oilman. He later moved to Washington, D.C., and worked as a court reporter. He returned to Denton in 2000 and started a decorative arts business with his longtime partner, Richard Jordan, who preceded him in death.
After returning to Denton, Clifton was often a vociferous critic of local governance and officials. He was both revered and reviled by community leaders who felt the sting of his words.
A longtime friend, Kevin Bradshaw, said Clifton was a magnet for information, saying no biography of him would be complete without naming him as a founding member of the “The Group.”
“He was a good friend and mentor,” Bradshaw said. “He taught me a lot.”
Sam Alexander, a former Denton Municipal Electric employee, met Clifton as part of his own activism to get changes at City Hall.
“Through all those years Bob and I worked on many projects together,” Alexander said. “We didn’t always agree on our approach, but we always agreed on the end game. He was a wealth of information. What he didn’t know, he would research till he did know.”
A visiting judge branded him a vexatious litigant after he filed four lawsuits against the city government in two years. In 2008, for example, he was part of a lawsuit accusing the city of allowing term limit violations. The move forced Denton to call a charter amendment election to ratify what had become a practice: council members resigning their seat to run at-large and reset the term limit clock.
Clifton ran for mayor in 2006 and again in 2010, first challenging Perry McNeill and then Mark Burroughs in their reelection bids. Burroughs later alleged that Clifton dropped out of the 2010 race in exchange for money.
A sheriff’s office investigator determined twice that there was no evidence of bribery, a Denton Record-Chronicle investigation uncovered. But a Denton County grand jury, in its final meeting, indicted Clifton on a felony bribery charge and on another misdemeanor charge of tampering with a government record.
Clifton’s attorney challenged the grand jury’s makeup, but his motion was dismissed. After a Record-Chronicle investigation revealed that multiple members of the grand jury were connected to City Hall and to Burroughs, the Denton County District Attorney’s office dropped the felony charge. Among revelations in the investigation: two grand jury members, including McNeill, were asked by the DA’s office to abstain from the proceeding because their names would come up as part of evidence in the case against Clifton.
Clifton’s case became part of growing criticism of Texas’ antiquated grand jury system. Other states long ago abandoned the practice that was nicknamed “pick-a-pal” because the presiding judge appointed a commission who nominated the grand jury members.
At first, former state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, proposed a legislative reform that would make it impossible to uncover the names of grand jury members. But after several other controversial indictments, including that of former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, the Texas Legislature passed legislation abandoning the antiquated process.
Since 2015, grand juries in Denton County and the rest of Texas are assembled from a random pool of summoned residents, much like regular juries.
As Clifton’s health began to fail in recent months, he appeared less frequently at public meetings. In July 2019, he quoted Socrates as he told Denton school board members that a bronco sculpture proposed for the top of the new Denton High School dome was inappropriate. Calling the bronco a sports insignia, he suggested the flame of knowledge be installed atop the dome instead.
Clifton argued that, instead of taxpayers, donors should pay for a bronco sculpture to be installed on the grounds.
The bond progress committee later took up the matter and members agreed that there was no problem with having a bronco on top of the dome.
Even in death, Clifton’s status as an organ and tissue donor provided a final gift to the community.
A memorial service and celebration of life will be held at 6 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 29, at Cooper Creek United Methodist Church, 5209 Mingo Road.