Commissioners hear Holder's grievance against Grubbs

STEVE NASH steve.nash@brownwoodbulletin.com
Fired sheriff's deputy Michelle Holder and Sheriff Bobby Grubbs managed to have a brief, friendly exchange before the start of Holder's grievance hearing before the Brown County Commissioners Court Thursday morning. The hearing, which was held in open session at Holder's request,  ended on a less friendly note. Brown County Judge Ray West, while acknowledging that the commissioners court can't overturn the decision of an elected official, urged Grubbs to be "open-minded" in his decision to terminate Holder with a general, rather than an honorable, discharge. Holder said she hopes to have her discharge changed to honorable so she'll have a better hope of getting another job. Holder said she has sent in paperwork to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement for a hearing before that agency.

 There might have been just one point of agreement during former sheriff's deputy Michelle Holder's grievance hearing against Sheriff Bobby Grubbs Thursday morning in the Brown County Commissioners Court.

The agreement point: the commissioners court had no authority to overturn the decision of Sheriff Bobby Grubbs to fire Holder and list her discharge with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement as "general" rather than "honorable." Brown County Judge Ray West made that statement.

Holder said she wants her discharge upgraded to honorable because a general discharge will hamper her ability to find another job in law enforcement.

Grubbs said earlier that sheriff's officials began an internal investigation  "concerning employee associations with an eight-liner business in the North Lake area of Brown County." It was determined that two employees were in violation of departmental professional conduct policies concerning their association with questionable activity (promotion of gambling). Grubbs said in a press release.

Both employees were terminated from employment with the Sheriff’s Office for policy violations.

At times terse and pointed, the clearly adversarial hearing Thursday morning nonetheless stayed calm as Holder, Grubbs and Chief Sheriff's Deputy Bobby Duvall stated their views of the events that led to the firing of Holder as well as her husband, Mike, a part-time medical clerk with the sheriff's office, last month. Mike Holder is a candidate in the Precinct 2 justice of the peace race and faces incumbent Bob Wall in the May 27 runoff election.

West and commissioner Joel Kelton asked several questions, and West said he disagrees with Grubbs' decisions related to Michelle Holder. West said he can't understand why, if Holder hasn't been charged with a crime, she should have her livelihood affected by a general discharge. Grubbs said he stands by his decision and also said Holder's actions had put her "borderline" on a dishonorable discharge.

The Holders' firings followed an investigation into a North Lake business — the Monte Carlo cafe — run by Mike Holder's brother, Greg. The business had eight-liner machines, which are now shut dow.

'I am OK with an open session'

West convened the hearing by telling Holder she could have it in closed or open session. "I am OK with an open session," Holder said.

After Holder talked about her general discharge, she addressed the dispute over whether she notified people including Grubbs, other law enforcement officials, Brown County Attorney Shane Britton and then-Assistant County Attorney Elisha Nix — now Elisha Bird, a felony prosecutor — that Greg Holder's business had eight-liners.

"What I understand from (sheriff's Capt. Tony Aaron) is that he and Elisha recall me saying it," Holder said. She said she notified them of the Monte Carlo eight-liners the morning of Aug. 6, 2012, when lawmen were preparing to run search warrants on several area game rooms with eight-liners.

Holder also said she understands that lawmen knew there were actually two eight-liner businesses out in the county.

'Clear my name'  

"I need to clear my name," Holder said. "… As soon as (Grubbs) fired us, within two hours he made a big media blitz and pretty much trashed our name."

Kelton asked why she'd received a general discharge.

"I'm assuming they terminated me for conduct unbecoming because I have a brother-in-law who owns a business and I go eat lunch there once a month," Holder replied.

Kelton then asked Holder if she's the only officer who's eaten there.

"I don't think so but I don't know," Holder said. She said deputies have taken crime reports at the business and even returned one or two eight-liners that were taken in a burglary to the previous owner of the business.

Answering another Kelton question, Holder said she doesn't know of any crime she's been charged with. Kelton asked her if it is "common practice to get a general discharge without being charged (with) a crime."

"Sir, I don't know," Holder replied.

'They're not happy with just terminating you'

Before she and her husband were fired, Holder said, Duvall told her that if she'd told Grubbs about the eight-liners, Grubbs "would've done something about it." Holder said she told Duvall she wasn't going to back down from her assertion that Grubbs had known about the Monte Carlo eight-liners.

"Next thing you know … we're both being terminated, walked out, and within two or three hours the big media blitz on how we're promoting gambling. … In this area, trying to get a job once you've been terminated by Sheriff Grubbs is nearly impossible.

"I think we've all seen that from other people he's terminated, whether it was just cause or not. They're not happy with just terminating you. They've got to ruin your life."

'An at-will employment state'

West noted that Texas is an "at-will employment state" and said even in county government, a department head has the authority "to hire and fire at will, with our without cause."

West said the issue seemed to be the status of Holder's state law enforcement license, and he asked Grubbs to explain why he had given Holder a general discharge.

"She has indicated in her complaint a very serious action, not so much in the firing as in the action taken with regard to her peace officer's license," West said.

'Michelle's actions met the concept of a general discharge'

Grubbs said there are three types of discharges — honorable, general and dishonorable. "Michelle's actions met the concept of a general discharge," Grubbs said without elaborating. He said her discharge was "borderline dishonorable" but he chose to give her a general discharge.

"I feel like we made the right ruling and I stand behind what I made," Grubbs said.

'Do you think she deserved a general discharge?'

Grubbs, answering questions from Kelton and West, said Holder has not been charged with a crime and isn't sure if she will be charged later.

"If she's not charged with a crime, do you think she deserved a general discharge?" West asked.

"Yes, I'm going to stay with the general," Grubbs said.

"Why?" West asked. "If she's not charged with a crime, I don't understand that."

"By her conduct," Grubbs replied. This is what's brought this down."

"Her conduct being what?" West fired back.

'You'll conduct yourself in such a way …' 

Duvall answered that question. "The violation of our policy is, conduct unbecoming of an officer," Duvall said. "It states very clearly, from the first day of employment, that you'll conduct yourself in such a way that you wont' be around these things, won't be around anything that is associated with criminal activity, any criminals.

" … We exhaustively investigated this. … We found volumes of information that led us right up to the high probability of filing charges. We feel very stingily about our stance in this."

'She says you were all aware of this'

Kelton asked about the morning of Aug. 6, 2012, when Holder has said she told Grubbs and others about the Monte Carlo eight-liners. "You say you don't remember, but there were quite a few people in that meeting?" Kelton asked.

"I think that's asking us to get in-depth with the investigation and play on the words that were said that some remember and some don't 18 months ago," Duvall replied.

"Forget about the words. She's in violation of our policy up to that day. She is clearly knowledgeable out the operation, knows about it, kind of knows the ins and outs about it, and she had already crossed the line when we realized she was there."

'Whether it was legal or illegal was not her province'

West disagreed, saying it is "extremely cogent to this discussion" as to whether Holder had notified Grubbs and others about the eight-liners. "Whether it was legal or illegal was not her province," West said.

"Her province was to advise (Grubbs) … and if she did, what the sheriff's office is doing is wrong, end of story."

'I don't think they need to be answering any more questions'

West asked Britton if Holder had told him about the eight-liners. Britton didn't answer the question directly but said he'd advised Grubbs and Duvall they don't need to be answering any questions because there has been "more than one threat of a lawsuit against Brown County because of this action."

Britton said he thinks he needs to take his own advice.

'We can make a strong recommendation'

West noted that the commissioners court can't overturn a decision by an elected official or department head. "We cannot unequivocally require (Grubbs) to do anything," West said. "We can make a strong recommendation …

"So if the sheriff's office is strongly against reversing its actions, I will whole- heartedly disagree with that position.I think the sheriff's office has a duty to have an open mind and if someone is not charged with a criminal offense and has that sort of action taken against their livelihood, I think they have been wronged."'

'I don't want you all to think this is the end'

Britton said Holder has started or is going to start the process of appealing her discharge to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Witnesses will be questioned and cross-examined before a neutral judge, Britton said.

"I don't want you to think this is the end," he said.

'This office should reconsider its discharge'

West said he wanted to clarify his position. "What I am disappointed in is the adamancy," West said. "I feel that the sheriff's office has a duty to be open minded … so if she is found not to have engaged in criminal conduct and not to have been, as Mr. Duvall said, in violation of conduct not becoming an officer, then this office should reconsider its discharge."

Duvall replied, "If you knew what we knew — and we don't want to milk it out in this room — I think you would take the polar opposite of what you just said."

"All I know is what I've heard," West said.

' … not on the table'

"There are a lot of details of this that's not on the table," Grubbs said. We can't discuss them with you at this time. I have been advised not to discuss them (under) possible litigation.

"We have looked at this long and hard. This is the procedure we follow and the procedure I stand by."

Kelton said it hasn't been answered as to whether Holder had notified Grubbs and others about the eight-liners.

"I'm going to answer that one for you," Grubbs said. "From my standpoint, no, she did not contact me."

"But you're not the only one that she …" Kelton began.

"I'm not the only one," Grubbs said. "But that's the same answer I got from some other people also. That's all I can say about that."

"All of the people or some of the people?" Kelton asked.

"That's all I'm going to say about that," Grubbs replied.