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Did this Texas county official break the law to comply with the law?

San Jacinto County Judge John Lovett Jr. was suspended indefinitely by the state's judicial conduct commission after being indicted on three criminal charges. It looks like his alleged crimes may all have been for the sake of open government.

Mugshot of San Jacinto County Judge John Lovett Jr.

Why did San Jacinto County Judge John Lovett Jr., the elected leader of a small county north of Houston, enter his own county clerk’s office after hours last July, allegedly committing a misdemeanor and two felonies?

It seems that maybe he was running late.

County commissioners have to publicly post agendas 72 hours ahead of their meetings — it’s the law. Here’s how it was usually followed in San Jacinto County: Lovett brought the agenda for Tuesday’s meetings to County Clerk Dawn Wright; she, or one of her deputies, signed and stamped it; they made copies and posted it outside well before Saturday morning, the deadline for public notice.

But on Friday, July 7, 2017, it was after 5 p.m. and Wright had yet to receive the agenda. Her office, she said, closes at 5 and isn't open on weekends. She left around 5:15 p.m.

About 15 minutes later, records say, Lovett entered the office using his master key and stamped the agenda with Wright’s signature and the time: 5:31 p.m. He told a local news station days later that he needed to post it for public viewing. 

He triggered a silent alarm that alerted authorities. Wright called for an investigation into the break-in. And then, nearly 10 months after the incident, Lovett was arrested Monday on charges of burglary, forgery and tampering with a governmental record. On Thursday, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct announced that it had suspended him without pay until further notice.

Lovett has said he had the authority — and the master key — to enter Wright’s office.

"It would've been a very easy fix for [Wright] to just stay a few minutes after 5 o'clock and accept that filing," Lovett said last year, adding that Wright had been "derelict" in her duties. He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Local officials said a hearing date for the criminal charges has not yet been set. Wright said the commissioners will meet Monday to decide what to do in his absence. 

The irony, Wright said, is that the agenda “doesn’t have to be stamped before it’s posted.”

“It’s just a good practice,” she said.

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