The County Gin was questioned by the Wharton County District Attorney’s Office regarding the media organization’s reporting on former Wharton County Sheriff’s Office deputy James Elliott.
Throughout the day on Thursday, Nov. 5, Wharton County DA investigator Raymond Jansky made several attempts to contact editor-in-chief Natalie Frels-Busby.
In a phone conversation with Jansky, The County Gin Publisher Jessica Hartman raised concern of a possible conflict of interest after the district attorney’s office recused itself from the Elliott investigation on Aug. 4.
Despite a request to conduct an interview over the phone, Jansky asked The County Gin to appear at the district attorney’s office and submitted a formal request.
At 11:38 a.m. the following morning, Jansky and Wharton County District Attorney Dawn Allison met with Hartman and Frels-Busby.
At the beginning of the interview, Jansky was forthcoming, addressing Hartman’s concerns about an alleged personal or professional conflict of interest following the district attorney’s decision to recuse her office from the investigation of James Elliott on Aug. 4.
“And I want to put it up front, James Elliott and I are friends,” Jansky said. “I want that to be clear. We’re real good friends, but pushing that aside, Dawn has asked me to investigate this. This is my job. This is what I do and I do my job to the fullest extent.”
He then proceeded to ask questions regarding The Gin’s sources of information for the initial reporting on Elliott.
“There is a source somewhere that has (potentially) violated the law and provided y’all with that information,” Jansky said. “I’m going to ask you who that individual was that you got that information from.”
“And I’m going to respectfully decline to answer that,” Frels-Busby said. “So, what I will say is that I did not speak to a grand juror and I did not speak to anybody who testified before the grand jury.”
“What I’m fixing to hand to you is the Code of Criminal Procedure 20.02 and 20.22 and ask you read these and you may consider changing your answer,” Jansky replied.
Frels-Busby was then presented the Texas Criminal Code and asked to read highlighted portions.
As Frels-Busby began reading the code, Allison interrupted, saying, “We’re not mad at y’all. Our grand jury meeting is so sacred. That’s why there are criminal charges when that’s violated and we just want to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. If it’s someone from my office, they will be terminated immediately. Whoever it may be. We don’t even know what the indictment says because we haven’t seen it.”
Jansky added, “We don’t know that James Elliott was indicted and I’m the bailiff of the grand jury. The prosecutor walked out, handed the indictments to the clerk and said, ‘These are sealed.’ The clerk walked and put them in a drawer and that was it.”
Allison again stated, “Like I said, what our concern is … we’re not mad at y’all because y’all are doing your job. You’re reporting, but the consequences of stuff getting out from a sealed indictment is very serious and for other reasons, it can affect the case.”
Jansky again asked for the names of the confidential sources.
“I’m asking for the purpose of the investigation,” he said, turning his attention to Frels-Busby. “Because if we pursue criminal charges here, are you going to take the fall for somebody else?”
“Yes,” she replied.
Both Hartman and Frels-Busby offered to sign affidavits to affirm the information was not obtained by a grand juror, someone who testified before the grand jury nor an individual from the district clerk’s office.
Allison said it was not necessary; however, Jansky stated, “We can get a grand jury subpoena.”
The district attorney said, “My concern was with going to a grand jury if one of our grand jurors released it. We can go to our grand jury and have them subpoenaed and have them look at it.
She continued, “Yeah and I agree with you, you have a job to do to protect your sources, which is what you have to do.”
Hartman and Frels-Busby again offered to sign an affidavit attesting to the fact that the information reported in the article about James Elliott was not obtained in violation of the cited criminal code.
“You know, you said we’re doing our job,” Frels-Busby added. “We are doing our job by protecting our sources.”
Frels-Busby and Hartman agreed that before giving over any further information, they would like to consult with counsel.
Before going off the record; however, Allison said in regards to Elliott’s indictment, “We all know everybody knows. I know my conversations with the (attorney general’s) office has been, well, you know, ‘How would anybody know this?’ So, I said, ‘This is a small county, everybody knows this.’”
The Gin will not comment further on this matter, but will continue to update this story as more information becomes publicly available.
Publisher’s Note: Integrity is our most esteemed value in delivering ethical investigative reporting. We understand this is a sensitive matter involving a former county employee; however, protecting sources that provide information to us in confidence speaks to that integrity. Breaches of confidentiality have a chilling effect and harm our ability to do our jobs. Without our sources, we could not fulfill our mission of creating a more well-informed community. We will continue sharing the stories of our community and holding truth to power.
If you would like to help The County Gin in an effort to offset current or any future legal fees or costs incurred regarding this matter, please consider donating through PayPal, Venmo (@thecountygin) or Cash App($TheCountyGin). Your donations power our mission and mean so much to us in this time of need. Thank you for allowing us to share the stories of our community. Thank you for joining the movement.