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Attempt to ban recordings triggers criminal complaint

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The Ellis County Press

                BARDWELL – Mayor P.W. Gentry’s threat to ban The Ellis County Press’ reporters from recording a public April 7 meeting triggered an official oppression complaint, as well as a statement from a former police chief that retaliation would ensue for the paper’s reporting of the incident.

                “As I walked into the council meeting, camera in hand, the mayor immediately approached me and informed me that he was not going to allow cameras for the meeting, which was open to the public,” said ECP reporter and licensed private investigator J. Hoskins. “I told him that it was allowed under the law and would remain.  He then threatened to file criminal charges against me for the recording of the meeting.”

Publisher Charles Hatfield, in response, filed an official oppression complaint with both state and local authorities. Assistant prosecutor Phillip Martin from County Attorney Joe Grubbs’ office, said the Texas Rangers are investigating the matter, and will help this newspaper with investigations into other alleged crimes committed by city officials.

“We will not cower to mayors or any public official,” said Hatfield, who started the paper in 1992. “To threaten us with criminal charges for recording an open public meeting is official oppression and we will ask for full prosecution of the mayor.

“Nobody threatens my staff with criminal charges for doing our First Amendment duty.”

After the meeting, Gentry again threatened Hoskins and three other ECP reporters in attendance.

“He then commenced to telling me that I was to leave the City Hall, and again threatened criminal charges,” Hoskins said, who videotaped the meeting. “ I then told the mayor that the camera was allowed under the Open Meetings Act.  He again threatened criminal charges for my having a recording device, which was allowed under Chapter 551.023 of the Texas Government Code, a section of law better known as the Texas Open Meetings Act.  After being informed that he was committing official oppression, a criminal offense under the Texas Penal Code, the mayor laughed and took his place at the council table.”

Former Bardwell Police Chief Michael Chase Meissner, in a taped phone conversation to Hoskins, asked the paper not to file charges on the mayor.

He’s “not a drug lord, just an old man,” Meissner said.

Meissner was also on tape saying he expected current Chief Michael Spurgeon to retaliate against reporters and citizens who opposed the mayor at the meeting. Spurgeon and his wife, Shannon, followed Hoskins along Interstate Highway 45 towards the ECP office following the meeting.

“We will not tolerate this behavior from any public official,” Hatfield said. “They’re messing with the wrong hornet’s nest.”


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