Last week, many Texans in Tarrant County hoped to see their local government held accountable for harassing a private citizen who has helped thousands save money on their property taxes. Unfortunately, they were disappointed.
On Friday, two Tarrant Appraisal District employees at the center of the scandal received slaps on the wrist in the form of temporary suspensions as punishment for targeting local realtor and tax consultant Chandler Crouch with misleading complaints that have since been dismissed.
Crouch is well known for helping Tarrant County homeowners lower their tax bills by protesting their property appraisals, free of charge.
An overflow crowd attended Friday’s Tarrant Appraisal District board of directors meeting to support Crouch and hear what actions the board would take against Residential Appraisals Director Randy Armstrong and his boss, Chief Appraiser Jeff Law.
“I’ve filed over 90,000 protests,” Crouch said Friday. “The way I see it, all you have to do is get very effective at protesting and Randy Armstrong is going to come after you.”
Last year, Armstrong filed four complaints against Crouch with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, accusing Crouch of making a “mockery of the current tax system.”
Armstrong’s complaints were made using his official title and taxpayer-funded resources, but Law told Crouch in November the complaints were not authorized by TAD.
Law later claimed he believed Armstrong had filed the complaints against Crouch on his own initiative and time. That proved to be wrong.
Crouch tried to resolve the issue directly with Law, without success.
He then confronted the board about the conflict of interest at TAD’s June 10 board meeting, after public information requests in May by Texas Scorecard revealed Armstrong targeted Crouch using official resources (covered in a two-part investigative series here and here).
At an emergency board meeting on June 30, where hundreds of protesters lined up to call for Law and Armstrong to be fired, TAD officials said they would conduct an internal investigation and provide an update at the August meeting.
But the original August 12 agenda failed to mention the targeting scandal. After Crouch alerted citizens on August 10 that the appraisal district wasn’t doing what they said they would, TAD posted a revised agenda that included “discussion and possible action” on Armstrong and Law.
Citizens, including Crouch, showed up Friday expecting transparency, accountability, and action.
Just the day before, Crouch was vindicated when TDLR closed the case initiated by Armstrong’s complaints, saying there wasn’t “sufficient evidence” of any violation.
“TDLR has cleared me of all allegations,” Crouch said Friday. “It’s been a complete witch hunt.”
Whether or not Armstrong’s complaints against Crouch were retaliatory, it was clear from the evidence that he misused his government title, resources, and authority to target a private citizen.
“I’ve got evidence for anything you want,” Crouch told the board. “I hope more than anything this body seeks the truth.”
“Randy Armstrong has gone into another entity for data without going through proper channels,” he added, referring to records Armstrong obtained using his position with the appraisal district, not via a public information request.
Yet an outside attorney’s review of Armstrong’s actions surrounding the TDLR complaints, distributed by the board following Friday’s three-hour closed executive session, concluded that Armstrong’s use of TAD resources to file personal complaints against Crouch was “appropriate given the totality of the circumstances and the overall duties of the Director.”
Page 3 of the review summary states, “The Director’s actions were taken independently, albeit apparently within the course and scope of his employment.” Attorney Todd Clark also concluded Armstrong’s actions were “not based on retaliatory motives.”
The review was commissioned by Law, whose job was also at risk for his part in failing to properly supervise Armstrong.
The summary was dated August 11—just one day before the August 12 board meeting and the same date as TDLR’s letter clearing Crouch.
Crouch called the review “trash.”
Based on the reviewer’s conclusions, Armstrong and Law were suspended rather than fired.
As Armstrong’s supervisor, Law decided the director’s punishment: suspension for an as-yet unspecified time period.
The board then voted on Law’s punishment: a two-week suspension without pay, starting today.
Director Rich DeOtte was the lone “no” vote against suspension; he wanted the board to fire Law.
Meanwhile, a group of local government officials representing taxing entities within Tarrant County, along with members of the press, have filed a complaint with TDLR against Law and Armstrong.
Under the Texas Tax Code, local taxing entities appoint appraisal district directors to serve two-year terms. The board consists of five directors and the county assessor-collector, who is not a voting member. The board hires the chief appraiser.
Tarrant Appraisal District directors are Kathryn Wilemon (Chairman), Rich DeOtte (Secretary), Joe Ralph Martinez, Tony Pompa, Jungus Jordan, and Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Wendy Burgess.
Directors’ contact information is not published on the TAD website, but their email addresses are included in letters from Crouch’s attorney (sent May 12 and June 13) asking the board and Law to address Armstrong’s TDLR complaints against Crouch.
In another disturbing incident during Friday’s Tarrant Appraisal District meeting, two citizen journalists, Manuel Mata and Thomas Torlincasi, were forcibly ejected from the building by Tarrant County sheriff’s officers at the request of TAD communications consultant Ricardo Aguilera.
Citizens and members of the press were previously locked out of the June 30 meeting by Aguilera and sheriff’s officers, which experts called a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Following Friday’s meeting, Crouch said he is hopeful that shining a light on the Tarrant Appraisal District’s actions will yield some positive results.
“This whole situation was not easy for anyone involved,” Crouch said. “I wish it never would’ve happened. I did everything I could to avoid it, but I feel like a lot of good things have come from this.”
“I hope to be able to make a difference in our property tax system,” he added. “We have a lot of room for improvement, but I’m always grateful for progress.”
Tarrant Appraisal District board meetings are not recorded on video, but audio recordings are available on the TAD website.