UPDATED February 28 to include documents provided by Lee Finley.
Voters are calling for transparency after a North Texas candidate fired back at what he calls “false and misleading” statements in a political mailer sent out ahead of the March 1 primary.
A voting guide called the LINK Letter started hitting Collin County mailboxes this month, claiming to recommend the “most conservative” candidates on the GOP primary ballot.
Local voters said they were surprised to see a “guest editorial” in the mailer attacking Collin County Judge Chris Hill, who is running for re-election in the 2022 Republican primary, and endorsing his opponent.
What many didn’t know is that the multi-page mailer produced by Houston-based conservative radio host Terry Lowry has a reputation as a pay-to-play slate.
Candidates can buy ads in the mailer in exchange for Lowry’s recommendation and/or placing an article in the guide.
Judge Hill said he declined an offer from Lowry to purchase advertising in the newsletter in exchange for an endorsement.
“I’m tremendously proud of the 3500+ endorsements we have received from Collin County voters, and—for the record—we didn’t pay for a single one of those endorsements,” he said.
He also refuted multiple claims made in the editorial.
“It is intentionally false and misleading on multiple fronts,” Hill said in response to voters’ questions on social media.
The editorial, written by local talk radio host and retired Justice of the Peace John Payton, endorsed Hill’s primary opponent Lee Finley. Lee is the husband of Collin County District Clerk Lynne Finley, with whom Hill has had run-ins during the past year after she reportedly failed to show up for work for six months.
Both Finleys have full-page ads in the mailer and were recommended by Lowry on his sample ballot.
“The article in the Link Letter is purportedly authored by John Payton, yet it includes all of Mr. Finley’s campaign talking points,” Hill said.
Payton told Texas Scorecard a campaign consultant drafted the editorial and he edited it with input from the Finleys:
On this, we sat down [and] put together the talking points like I have in any campaign. The consultant did a draft and we got it back, and I went to work editing and [rewrote] 3 or 4 versions before I had the version I was satisfied with. I discussed each version with Lynne and Lee.
The mailer fails to disclose the candidates’ input to Payton’s editorial and presents its recommendations as independent assessments rather than paid political advertising.
Payton added he disagrees with Hill’s rebuttal and has “documented evidence” that the claims in the editorial are true.
Lee Finley also told Scorecard he had documentation. He provided invoices for legal services on July 24, August 7, and August 8, 2019, totaling $1,313 (Payton’s editorial called it “thousands” of dollars) relating to whether Hill could perform magistrate duties as a county judge.
Voters say they just want transparency about the relationships among the parties providing the information.
Lowry started the LINK Letter in Harris County but has expanded his mailers to Brazoria, Collin, Galveston, Fort Bend, Lubbock, McLennan, and Tarrant counties.
Many Republican candidates see it as a worthwhile way to advertise their campaigns. Others criticize the misleading practice of selling endorsements.
In 2014, the Harris County Republican Party passed a resolution condemning pay-to-play endorsements like Lowry’s.
This year’s Lubbock LINK Letter also raised questions about the legitimacy of the voting guide.
Texas Scorecard is contacting other candidates about their experiences with LINK Letter.
Early voting in the March 1 primary ends Friday. Voters can find complete election information on the Collin County Elections website.
The LINK Letter editorial and Hill’s rebuttal are shown below.
1. Judge Hill did not “have a political opponent arrested after publicly criticizing Hill in a public hearing.” During Commissioners Court in May 2021, a speaker during the public comments portion of the meeting refused to yield the microphone after his time expired, and he was repeatedly asked to finish his remarks and return to his seat. When he refused, the Commissioners Court voted unanimously to hold the speaker in contempt of court, and asked him to leave the courtroom. After he refused to leave the courtroom, he was removed by the bailiff. In the hallway, the bailiff informed him that he was free to go, and instructed him to leave the building. According to the bailiff, the individual refused to leave and insisted on returning to the courtroom. After continuing to ignore the bailiff’s orders, he was arrested by the bailiff. Neither Judge Hill nor the Commissioners Court ordered that the individual be arrested. In November 2021, the individual did file paperwork to run as a Democrat against Judge Chris Hill, but he was not a “political opponent” of Judge Hill at the time of the incident.
2. Judge Hill did not attempt to make himself the Collin County Magistrate Judge. Texas state law requires the Collin County Commissioners Court to appoint a Magistrate Judge to preside over arraignment proceedings, and the Commissioners Court has done so. Judge Hill did not request or seek to be appointed as the Magistrate Judge. Texas state law specifies that all elected judges (including Judge Hill) are “magistrates,” and there is no logical reason for Judge Hill to “attempt to make himself the Collin County Magistrate Judge.” Even though Judge Hill is a “magistrate” and has full magistration authority, Judge Hill has never presided over magistration proceedings, and does not intend to. The appointed Magistrate Judge handles those duties. Judge Hill’s duties are almost entirely administrative. Excluded from the article is the relevant point that Mr. Finley submitted an application seeking to be appointed as the Collin County Magistrate Judge, but was not selected by the Commissioners Court.
3. Judge Hill did not have “a section of the Texas Government Code amended to remove magistration… from Collin County Judges and Justices of the Peace. This is simply false. All elected judges and justices of the peace in Collin County have magistration authority. No such amendment has ever been made or requested.
4. Neither Judge Hill nor the Commissioners Court has any authority over the decisions of the Magistrate Judge regarding bail amounts for accused criminals. Judge Hill has never interfered in the decisions of the Magistrate Judge and has never requested a bail amount be lowered (or raised).
5. Judge Hill does not appoint the Magistrate Judge. The Commissioners Court appoints the Magistrate Judge. The appointed Magistrate Judge is vested with statutory authority and legal powers appropriate for her duties. Neither Judge Hill nor the Commissioners Court exercises control over the judicial decisions of the Magistrate Judge. If a plaintiff disagrees with a decision of the Magistrate Judge, the plaintiff must appeal the decision within the established judicial system. The Commissioners Court does not hear appeals from the magistration court.