Joyce Dean

Joyce Dean

The deadline for the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office to return computers and other property seized from an arrested county official came and went Monday, spurring county commissioners to hire an attorney to get the official’s belongings back.

Sheriff’s deputies seized a county computer, a cellphone and other records used by the county’s top administrative official, Joyce Dean, when they arrested her Dec. 19 for alleged theft by a public servant greater than $100. A week later, a judge dismissed the criminal case against her and ordered the sheriff to return the property within 72 hours.

But 72 hours later, when the deadline passed at 12:38 p.m. Monday, the belongings taken as part of the search warrant still hadn’t been returned, County Judge Ben Zeller said. The deadline came just as county commissioners were wrapping up a special meeting, where they talked privately for almost two hours before coming out of closed session and agreeing to hire the attorney.

“The things that were taken and the things that were given access to have no business being anywhere outside our HR department, so it’s a serious interest of ours to make sure that data ... is returned and it’s protected,” said Zeller. “It’s not our luxury to assume anything in an instance like this.”

The county agreed to pay anywhere from $225 to $325 per hour for attorneys with the Austin- based law firm Lloyd Gosselink Rochelle & Townsend, which is charged with dealing with the search warrant and protecting the county’s confidential information, including employees’ medical and disability records.

Sheriff T. Michael O’Connor did not return a request for comment Monday, and Zeller said he hadn’t talked with him and didn’t know when the property would be returned.

The move to hire the attorney is the latest development in this unusual case surrounding the county’s top administrative official, which pits the sheriff’s office against the district attorney and now the commissioners court.

The case dates back to at least 2010, when the sheriff asked the Texas Rangers to investigate Dean, who first started working for the county in 1994. The Texas Rangers’ investigation report alleged that Dean used her government position and influence to improperly change her son’s time card records, repair his home with taxpayer dollars and have a county employee drive him around town for personal business.

The Texas Rangers gave that report to the Victoria County District Attorney’s Office in 2013, but the district attorney didn’t review the information for another two years and seven months. That’s when the district attorney told the Texas Rangers he was declining to prosecute the case because the statute of limitations had expired.

Then, Dec. 19, a shock came to many Victoria County officials: Sheriff’s deputies arrested Dean, leading her out of the courthouse in handcuffs. But just more than a week later, her case was dismissed by a San Antonio judge, who oversaw the hearing after all of Victoria’s judges recused themselves because of conflicts of interest. During that hearing, the outgoing district attorney, Stephen Tyler, described Dean’s arrest as retribution for disputes with the sheriff’s office. He also recommended that the sheriff’s investigator assigned to the case be arrested for official oppression.

The sheriff’s office has not responded publicly to the district attorney’s statements yet. Meanwhile, Zeller declined to comment when asked whether he agreed with the district attorney’s comments that Dean was arrested in retaliation.

Zeller did say, however, that Dean is currently taking paid time off but is expected to return to work next week. Dean was initially placed on administrative leave after the arrest, but that ended after the charges were dropped.

“I was not with the county a decade ago and have no firsthand knowledge about any of these allegations,” said Zeller, who was first elected in 2014. “What I do know is that on Friday, a visiting judge threw out all charges ... and as such, we don’t have a basis to keep her on administrative leave.”

Initially, commissioners weighed whether to conduct an internal review on the issue, which they would have pursued had Dean’s criminal case gone forward, Zeller said Monday. But after charges were dropped, they aren’t planning to move in that direction. The case itself is almost a decade old, and one of the key witnesses, Dean’s son, has since died, Zeller said.

“With what we know now, we’re not moving in that direction,” Zeller said. “But if something new were to emerge, some new evidence ... then we would certainly be interested in having a new investigation.”

The majority of commissioners, including Zeller, said Dean’s arrest came as a shock.

“I was not aware the sheriff had reactivated this investigation until after the arrest occurred,” Zeller said, adding that he had heard rumors about the investigation when he first took office but was under the impression the case was closed.

Commissioner Danny Garcia echoed Zeller: “I was made aware that they were investigating her the day she was arrested.”

That was true for Commissioner Kevin Janak, too. When asked when he was told about the investigation, he responded: “Never – it was just like, bang.”

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Marina reports on local government for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at mriker@vicad.com or 361-580-6511.

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Marina writes about housing, Hurricane Harvey recovery and local politics for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach Marina by emailing mriker@vicad.com or follow her on Twitter, @MarinaStarleaf.

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