During a court hearing on Friday morning, a visiting judge denied Precinct 1 Commissioner Harley David Belew’s request to slow or turn back an effort to remove him from office.
Belew’s attorney Patrick O’Fiel argued there was no evidence of a judge’s signature validating Belew’s 1973 conviction for a string of burglaries in the Fort Worth area when he was 17. O’Fiel said a judge should have signed the paperwork and that there was no evidence of a final conviction.
But 198th District Attorney Stephen Harpold outlined the numerous Tarrant County documents Belew signed to accept a plea agreement that saw him receive 10 years of probation rather than state prison for a single count of residential burglary — a Class 2 felony.
Visiting 198th District Court Judge Sid Harle, who Sixth Regional Administrative Judge Steven Ables assigned the case, took little time to rule against Belew.
“I reviewed everything before I came,” Harle said. “This has been well briefed by both sides.”
However, the argument that there should be a higher standard of proof of a conviction to remove an elected official didn’t sway Harle.
“The plea in abatement is denied,” Harle said. “We will proceed with the next steps.”
But then he opened up a line of questioning that could dramatically impact the commissioners’ court, which was on the legality of Belew’s service. Harle told both sides he wanted a briefing on the election code and the voidability of Belew’s votes.
“Retroactively?” Harpold asked.
“Yes,” Harle responded.
That decision could throw into question many of the 3-2 votes where Belew was in the majority.
Harle said he wanted to move the case forward and suggested late June or July. O’Fiel asked for some limited discovery, which Harle granted. Harle also agreed that if there were a summary judgment, he would hear that earlier than the date stated. Harle would make the decision on removal
Belew’s loss on Friday was not a surprise, considering the significant evidence against him and his signed plea agreement. The challenge for both sides and the judge is that quo warranto actions are rare and considered an extreme measure to remove an elected official, who must prove they have eligibility and a right to serve.
Even before both sides argued, Harle said he needed clarification on what they were trying to accomplish on Friday and asked if they wanted to decide the entire matter during the hearing. O’Fiel and Harpold agreed there needed to be a procedural step to move forward. Harle told both attorneys that the plea in abatement essentially argued the merits of the removal case — whether or not Belew is a felon.
But both sides agreed to move forward with just hearing the plea in abatement, where O’Fiel said Harpold’s filing didn’t meet the standard of conviction.
O’Fiel told Harle that Belew thought he was free of the criminal conviction because he had served the terms of his probation terms and would no longer have a criminal record.
It’s a critical definition because, in 2016 and 2020, Belew attested that he did not have a final felony conviction when he ran for commissioner. In 2021, the state changed the election application form to provide proof that a candidate with a felony conviction received a pardon or some other discharge limiting a run for office. The Texas Constitution prevents felons without a pardon from running for office.
Belew would avoid criminal prosecution for lying on the application forms — both misdemeanors — because the statute of limitations has run out.