Members of the Hood County Commissioners Court are considering what, if anything, they can do about John Shirley, a constable who some said they haven’t seen for months but who has continued to collect a paycheck from county taxpayers.

Shirley, who represents Precinct 2 and is paid $72,955 per year plus $601 in certificate pay, said he has been dealing with his wife’s cancer diagnosis.

Two unpaid deputy constables, Marc Neerman and Greg Neal, have been handling duties for that office.

Constables are provided for in Article 5, Section 18 of the Texas Constitution of 1876.

They are elected to Justice of the Peace precincts within each county and perform various law enforcement functions, including serving warrants and civil papers such as subpoenas and temporary restraining orders. They also serve as bailiffs for JP courts.

In addition to his alleged prolonged absence, other issues as well have recently arisen with Shirley, who reportedly reappeared at county offices on or around Wednesday, Oct. 20. His reappearance occurred at a time when the county was processing Open Records requests pertaining to him filed by the HCN.

“It’s funny that he would show up when people start asking questions,” said County Judge Ron Massingill, who was on the phone with the HCN when a county employee informed him of Shirley’s reappearance.

Through documents and emails obtained through Open Records, the newspaper discovered that Shirley failed to undergo training required by law for new constables, despite having been in office for three years. The noncompliance means that even if he attends the next scheduled class, he will be issued a reprimand from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE).

Records also revealed that a recent audit by the county’s IT department found that unauthorized changes were made to Shirley’s county-issued cell phone that allegedly put sensitive county information at risk.

That discovery led the IT department to disable Shirley’s device and to take steps to ensure that such risks never occur again.

Three members of the Commissioners Court, including Massingill, told the HCN in early October that they didn’t think they had seen Shirley since at least January.

On the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 21 Massingill asked County Attorney Matt Mills to contact the attorney general’s office about the quo warranto process, a means for removing someone from office if they are not performing their duties.

The Commissioners Court, composed of the county judge and four commissioners, oversees the county budget, and maintains county buildings, but has little authority over other elected officials.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Ron Cotton said that he feels Shirley should be investigated, but he was not sure who should conduct that probe: county law enforcement, or the Texas Rangers.

“We’re concerned that something’s going on there,” he said of the situation with Shirley. “We do not believe he’s reporting to work.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Kevin Andrews was reluctant to weigh in on Shirley’s alleged prolonged absences when contacted by the HCN.

“To the best of my knowledge, the workload is being completed and the timeliness of monthly reporting issues have been addressed,” he said. “Being an elected official, he answers to the voter. I don’t want to question how he gets his job done.”

Precinct 4 Commissioner Dave Eagle said that he had no personal knowledge of issues that have come to light with Shirley.

“However, in general, removing an elected official from office prior to the expiration of that elected official’s term is not an easy task and for good reason – the will of the people would be circumvented,” he wrote in an email to the HCN. “It is the voters who decide who is to be in office and who is not to be in office, not a group of individual(s) who might have a personal disagreement with said elected official.”

Eagle further noted that removal action must involve “egregious circumstances” that “can be proven in a court of law.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Jack Wilson, who attended Commissioners Court meetings prior to taking office at the start of the year and would sometimes see Shirley there, said he doesn’t believe he has seen the constable since the first of the year.

“He’s basically MIA,” Wilson told the HCN on Tuesday, Oct. 19, referring to the acronym for Missing in Action.

The HCN began submitting Open Records requests related to Shirley and the work output of his office on Oct. 7.

That same day, a post appeared on Shirley’s Facebook page stating that the HCN was looking into his absences, which he said were due to his wife’s cancer treatments.

A reply to that post under the name of Marc Neerman, presumably the same Marc Neerman who serves as one of Shirley’s volunteer deputies, stated that all duties for the Precinct 2 constable’s office were being completed in a timely manner and that “the citizens of precinct two are well served.”

Between Oct. 7-25, the HCN submitted 20 Open Records requests as part of its research into Shirley.

On the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 20, the newspaper received a tip that Shirley had resurfaced and was assisting in processing the newspaper’s requests. At that point the newspaper had received responses to several of its inquiries.

 Among the records received was a spreadsheet showing that the last time Shirley served an arrest warrant was on May 7, 2019. (According to HR Director Melissa Welborn, most warrants pass through the Sheriff’s Office, and those records are what she had access to when responding to the HCN’s request. She noted that occasionally a warrant may show up at a constable’s office without going through the SO.)

Research by the HCN found that, according to an IP address locator, Shirley was logged into the county system on at least one occasion while at or near M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

According to Shirley’s resume, which is on file with the county’s personnel office, he worked for the Houston Police Department from 1994-2015. In 2018 he founded Granbury-based Intrepid Investigations.

On Oct. 23, 2018, Shirley was appointed by a previous Commissioners Court to serve out the remaining term of Constable DeWayne Hart, who retired. His first day on the county’s payroll was the following Monday, Oct. 29.

In 2020, voters elected Shirley to a full four-year term. He won a three-man Republican primary contest with 55.05% of the vote and faced no Democratic candidate on the November ballot. His elected term began Jan. 1.

The Precinct 2 constable serves as bailiff for the Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace, a position currently held by Martin Castillo.

An email sent from Shirley’s email account to Castillo’s on Tuesday, May 14 stated that Shirley’s wife had “a preliminary cancer diagnosis,” that they were headed to M.D. Anderson in Houston, and that Shirley would do his best to get one of his reserve deputies to bailiff for Castillo’s court.

Castillo did not respond to several inquiries from the HCN.

Unlike county employees, there are no rules for elected officials regarding vacation time or sick leave, and FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) does not apply in the event of serious illness for themselves or a close family member.

Under FMLA, county employees who meet eligibility requirements receive up to 12 weeks’ leave per 12-month period, but the leave is unpaid unless they use vacation time or sick time.

Neal, one of Shirley’s reserve deputies, told the HCN on Oct. 7 that he hadn’t “spoken to John on the phone in a long, long, long time” but said that the constable would sometimes text him to ask that he handle bailiff duties. Neal spoke supportively of the constable and noted that Shirley’s wife has been seriously ill.

“She was, like, near death, just probably last week,” he said. “Her oxygen level was way down low.”

The HCN emailed Shirley that same day – Oct. 7 - inquiring about his absence. After receiving no response, the newspaper emailed him again on Monday, Oct. 11, then on Tuesday, Oct. 12, and again on Wednesday, Oct. 13.

The newspaper received a response to the email sent on Oct. 13.

“Precinct 2 Constable Office’s operations are unchanged,” the email stated. “I have no more to say to you regarding my wife’s serious battle with cancer or anything else.”

A ‘ROGUE’ PHONE

Attached to an email sent recently by Assistant Chief Information Officer Owen Curnutt to Cotton and Massingill was a letter from Curnutt dated Oct. 8. Curnutt works in the county’s IT department.

The letter informed the two court members that several issues had been discovered with Shirley’s government cell phone during an audit of county mobile devices conducted on Sept. 9.

The first indicator for Curnutt that something was amiss was when he noticed that Shirley’s iPhone 8 was missing from the list of devices.

“At this point I logged into the email address that is assigned to that iCloud account and verified my suspicions that this device had been taken rogue,” Curnutt wrote.

According to the IT employee, the following was revealed by the audit:

  • The password for the iCloud account was changed at 1:58 p.m. on April 23, 2020;
  • A new primary email address was added to the iCloud account at 12:41 p.m. on Aug. 20, 2020;
  • At 12:42 p.m. on Aug. 20, 2020, the “trusted phone number” was changed on the iCloud account to a phone number ending in “24” – the same digits that are in Shirley’s personal phone number as listed in personnel files. (The HCN found that the phone number listed online for Intrepid Investigations also ends with the digits “24.”)

“At this point the phone was essentially beyond recovery, as I no longer had access to the primary email account, nor the trusted phone number attached to it,” Curnutt wrote.

In addition, on the same day the phone number and email address were changed, the name on the account was switched from “Hood County” to “John Shirley,” according to Curnutt.

The audit also discovered that the “Find My” feature, a way of tracking the phone, was disabled from the iCloud account on Nov. 11, 2020.

According to Curnutt’s letter, the tracking mechanism was re-engaged twice but then disabled again. Once was on Feb. 2. The device’s location at that time was 9014 Monticello Dr. in Pecan Plantation.

The other time tracking was re-enabled was March 2. On that occasion, the phone was near Pecan Plantation, but no specific address was listed.

Curnutt’s letter to Massingill and Cotton stated that he emailed Shirley on Sept. 9, the day he performed the audit.

“In this email I advised Shirley of the discovery and informed him that cellular service would be disabled until the phone was returned to the County,” the letter reads. “I received a reply from Shirley on Sept. 10th, 2021, at approximately 12:31 AM informing me that he would return the device to me ‘as soon as I can.’”

The IT employee’s letter stated that he could not “assure the integrity” of Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) data that might have been on the phone.

“As it stands, I view this device as a threat to County data, CJIS related or otherwise,” he wrote.

Another concern detailed by Curnutt was that messages in Shirley’s county email inbox were being forwarded to his personal email account, possibly posing further security risks and possibly violating CJIS protocols.

“In short, Shirley knowingly took the device out of County control, as the steps taken could not have been done on accident,” Curnutt wrote. “Having this device out of County control presents a serious threat to the integrity of County data. I have now begun to research and demo software that will prevent any event like this from happening in the future.”

Curnutt provided additional detail about the situation in a memo to the HCN. He indicated that passwords for county-issued devices are closely guarded within the IT department, and that Shirley did not have access to the secret information, which is different from a lock screen password.

He stated that, while he doesn’t know for sure, he figures the constable likely contacted Apple support and convinced someone there to reset the password for him. Within Hood County government, the move was “incredibly unusual,” he wrote.

“Since we’ve had the devices, I’ve not encountered any other attempt to make these changes,” his memo stated.

Curnutt noted in his Oct. 8 letter that at the time he wrote it Shirley still had not returned the phone to IT.

At the time the HCN posted this article, the phone still had not been placed back in the county’s custody, according to Curnutt.

A REPRIMAND

Two days before Curnutt wrote his letter alerting elected officials about Shirley’s “rogue” cell phone, a different alarm bell was sounded, this one by Doug Skolaut, a captain with TCOLE’s Enforcement Division.

“Dear Constable John Shirley,” Skolaut wrote in a message sent to Shirley’s county email address. “TCOLE records show you have failed to obtain the newly elected constable training by the second anniversary of your appointment or election as constable, and I have attached a Non-Compliance letter for you to review. The letter will explain the violation and consequences of not correcting the non-compliance. I will be sending you the original Non-Compliance letter by certified mail.”

The three-paragraph letter cited the statute related to the required training and stated that Shirley was subject to a minimum 90-day suspension of his Commission-issued license.

“To mitigate a suspension of your Commission-issued license(s) to a reprimand, you are required to attend the next available initial training program for new constables provided by the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute,” the captain wrote.

Gretchen Grigsby, a spokesperson for TCOLE, told the HCN in an email that Shirley will be allowed to take the May 2022 training and come into compliance by doing so despite being significantly delinquent in obtaining that training. Shirley is registered for that training.

“As the schedule for the outstanding course is outside of Constable Shirley’s control, TCOLE has deferred action on the Constable’s license until that course has ended,” she wrote. “Assuming he completes the required course, he will be issued a reprimand at that time. If he fails to complete that course, his peace officer license will be suspended.”

Mills said that when he contacted the attorney general’s office at Massingill’s request, he was told the office had not “received anything from TCOLE.” He further stated that he contacted TCOLE and was told that if Shirley completes the May 2022 training, he will be in compliance.

Massingill told the HCN that TCOLE disciplinary action and the quo warranto process are two different things and that TCOLE allowing Shirley to keep his peace officer license, at least for now, does not change his view that the constable’s alleged absences need to be addressed.

“His reappearance does not change anything,” the judge said. “The records will speak for themselves. You know, how many civil process warrants he served, how many criminal warrants he served, his daily activity log. He can’t change that; that’s a governmental record.”

COMPARISON

The HCN obtained copies of audits performed on the county’s four constable offices as well as monthly reports filed by those elected officials.

An audit report for Oct. 1, 2020, through Aug. 24, 2021, states that Shirley “has not been timely submitting Monthly Reports to the Audit department.”

The report noted that a comparison of supporting documentation to the treasurer’s receipt records as well as to NetData collection records found no discrepancies, but “there were multiple reports that were not received timely.”

Precinct 4 Constable Chad Jordan also was late on some reports. Precinct 1 Constable Chad Davis and Precinct 3 Constable Randy Ellis submitted theirs on time.

A review of monthly reports from January through September found that Shirley’s Precinct 2 office collected the smallest amount of revenue during that time: a total of $6,898.

Revenue collected from constables goes into the county’s General Fund to help finance county government.

A breakdown of revenue brought in during that same time period by other constables is as follows: Davis, $11,372; Ellis, $13,632; and Jordan, $42,407.

According to County Auditor Becky Kidd, Jordan’s collections are higher because his office handles property tax delinquencies and property sales for the entire county. He serves more warrants, she said.

Comparing the serving of civil papers from January through September, Shirley’s office again lagged, with monthly reports totaling 66 in that category.

Total numbers for civil process for the others were: Davis, 561; Ellis, 176; and Jordan, 805.

For the same time period in 2020, Shirley’s monthly reports noted a total of 185 civil process papers served, and a total for the calendar year of 296.

Of the 66 listed for Shirley’s office for the first nine months of 2021, 19 were personally served by him, according to records the HCN received Monday morning. With that particular Open Records request, the newspaper had asked for documentation of civil papers personally signed and served by the constable as opposed to volunteer deputies acting on behalf of his office.

The records show that up to the time the request was filed, Shirley had not personally served civil papers since March 31.

By comparison, the documents show that the number of civil papers personally signed and served by Shirley in 2019 and 2020 were 286 and 284, respectively.

Massingill indicated that if the newspaper’s Open Records requests revealed that Shirley had done little or no work on behalf of Hood County in 2021 then the Commissioners Court “would probably vote to take it to the AG’s office to file a quo warranto action to remove him because the people of Precinct 2 need to have a fulltime constable that’s working.”

He added, “And secondly, you know, we can’t be paying $72,000 a year for no work at all. That’s what we’re trying to ascertain. Nobody has seen him. How can you do any work if you’re not even here?”

kcruz@hcnews.com | 817-579-1886