Former Smith County Judge Joel Baker has reached an agreement and pleaded no contest to one count of violating the Closed Meeting Act. A second and third charge for the same offense has been dismissed.
Baker will pay a $200 fine and serve 30 days non-reporting deferred adjudication, according to Baker’s attorney. He had faced up to a $500 fine and six months in jail.
The former Smith County Judge also agreed to waiving an appeal.
Baker was facing three charges of violating the Closed Meeting Act, all misdemeanor offenses. He turned himself in back on June 17, 2016. Baker has entered a not guilty plea.
Jury selection began Monday at 9:30 a.m in Smith County Court at Law 2. Visiting Judge Jack Carter presided over the case. Trial was avoided when the Attorney General’s Office learned of the Monday afternoon.
The charges stem from a contract the county agreed to with American Traffic Solutions, a company Baker announced in 2015 would partner with the county to launch a school safety program. Under the agreement, the county would pay $8,700 monthly for each camera used for 10 years. Early termination of the contract would result in a $600,000 penalty, according to a local watchdog group.
The program was met with large pushback from the community and put on hold. A few days after Baker announced the program would be delayed, a Smith County watchdog group filed a formal complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
Baker signed a letter of resignation on September 20, 2016.
Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham recused himself from the case on May 21, 2015. Prosecution was led by Assistant Attorney General Shane Attaway.
Attaway stated the outcome will allow Smith County to move on and not be tied up with the case.
Baker’s attorney, Joseph D. Murphy, released a statement regarding the outcome:
“During this entire ordeal, Judge Baker has maintained his innocence on the three Open Meeting Violation allegations. Today he entered a plea of no contest on one charge and in exchange for his plea, he received a $200 fine and thirty days of deferred, non-reporting probation, where his only obligation is to pay the fine. Once the fine is paid, the charge will be dismissed. There has not been and will not be a finding of guilt, and Judge Baker continues to maintain his innocence.
The last six months have been a very trying time for Judge Baker and his family. He entered into this agreement so that everyone involved could move on.
He would like to thank all those who continue to support him and looks forward to returning to his law practice to continue to fight for the rights of all East Texans.”
Baker began his first term as Smith County Judge in 2007. He was re-elected in 2010 and 2014.