County Judge Mary Horn has reimbursed the county $100 for using her county e-mail account to send out 39 e-mails soliciting endorsements for her re-election campaign in possible violation of state law.
The e-mails, copies of which were obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle under the state open records laws, had identical wording and were sent out over a 20-minute period between 1:30 and 1:50 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21.
“I am writing to ask for your endorsement for my re-election as Denton County judge. My [sic] I list you on my endorsement list? Thank you!” the e-mails ask. They are signed by Mary Horn, Denton County judge, and list her cellphone number.
Among the e-mail recipients were a number of local Republican precinct judges who are listed on her campaign website as supporting her re-election. Horn won the Republican primary election on Tuesday, defeating Corinth Mayor Paul Ruggiere and Highland Village attorney Sherman Swartz.
Under state law, it is a misdemeanor crime to use government property or resources for personal gain, such as in a political campaign.
Horn said Friday the e-mails were sent out by mistake. She said she was on the Republican Party’s website looking for addresses for precinct chairs and began sending e-mails.
“I was sitting here working on the weekend and I was in my Yahoo account and then I went on the Internet and inadvertently did it,” she said. “As soon as I realized what I did, I stopped.”
Horn said she spoke with County Auditor James Wells and told him what she had done and he told her there was a law that covers inadvertent use of county resources.
“I said I am aware of that,” she said. “I don’t like that I did that and I gave him a check for $100.”
She said she picked the amount out of thin air and asked Wells to tell her if he did not think it was appropriate.
“Basically, he was saying I really didn’t have to do it, but I felt I should, so I did,” she said. “I had reports I was putting together. I had deadlines to meet and that was my main focus.”
Ruggiere said it is disturbing that Horn would use county e-mail for a political campaign.
“I think that is a clear misuse of county resources,” he said. “Her attempt to compensate the county is only an admission of that. I don’t know if she included compensation for the time that citizens paid her to be in her office sending e-mails.”
Swartz said the appropriate authorities should review the matter.
“I don’t know enough of the situation to provide any more detail,” he said.
Denton County District Attorney Paul Johnson said he had not heard anything about the e-mails and did not want to speculate on the matter. He said a number of issues are raised about political campaigns.
“You have to have someone file a complaint,” he said. “We have to have something concrete and it could land up here or somewhere else.”
Horn’s check was received by Wells on Feb. 25, the same day that the Record-Chronicle submitted a public information request asking for copies of the e-mails. The check was dated Feb. 24 and was processed by the county treasurer’s office on Feb. 26.
A printout of the e-mails was provided to the Record-Chronicle on March 5, the day after the primary election.
Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog group in Austin, said paying the money to the county does not absolve Horn.
“The violation was already committed,” he said. “It’s not just taking the dollar value of the resource from the taxpayers. It’s about the imprimatur that the government supports you, that as the incumbent, that that gives you the upper hand.”
BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875 and via Twitter at @BjlewisDRC.