The controversy involves 17,712 acres in Baylor and Throckmorton Counties, owned by Upshur County. Certain revenue from the property, which is leased out, is annually distributed among the nine school districts lying partly or wholly in Upshur County, and the county government itself receives no monies from it.
The coalition had announced before Friday that its private meeting at the Gilmer Country Club, which drew about 30 people, would feature an unnamed “mystery speaker” who would discuss an unspecified “topic of local interest.”
Leach has frequently appeared before the County Commissioners Court in recent years to discusss the school land.
His remarks came as Fowler is seeking reelection to a fourth term in the March 4 Republican primary against attorney Ronnica Ridgeway. Ms. Ridgeway, who attended Friday night’s meeting, has also criticized Fowler’s handling of the land.
At the dinner, Leach contended his requests to the Commissioners Court, such as asking Fowler not to be an agent for third parties, “have always been answered with insults and condescending remarks.”
The speaker also said “the County Judge is unhappy to have the responsibility of managing” the land with no financial benefit to the county. And Leach alleged that school districts have been forced to pay a landman to determine the amount of minerals Upshur County owns on the property because Fowler failed to fulfill his “fiduciary duty.”
After handing out to the audience copies of numerous documents pertaining to the West Texas land, Leach said Fowler had executed an oil, gas and mineral lease with a certain oil company on Aug, 14, 2009, effective that day—six weeks before bids on it were opened.
Leach contends that an e-mail to Fowler from a petroleum company, dated Aug. 16, 2009, stated that it was partners with the oil firm; and that the contract was to be with the oil company, but that the bid was from the petroleum firm.
Yet, the bid from the oil firm on royalty interest was not opened by Fowler until a Sept. 30, 2009, meeting of the Commissioners Court—meaning he “entered into a contract. . . before bids were opened,” and has “never explained” why, the speaker said.
“Dean Fowler has never been held accountable for this action,” said Leach, asking the audience to do so. The speaker also charged that Fowler has never explained why $9,068 in bonus money on the property was not put in a fund for the schools until 2012.
Leach further raised questions about what he said was the oil company’s and Commissioners Court’s September, 2009 agreement for the company to pay for a survey on the property.
“Where is the money?” Leach asked, saying that to his knowledge, it was never credited to the Upshur County school fund. He then cited a March 4, 2012 article from the Longview News-Journal quoting Fowler as saying that the county was never paid because the work was never done.
But Leach said he has visited the school land, has “personal knowledge” the survey was performed, and cited invoices as proof.
“Is Dean Fowler still sticking to his story, and if the work was done, where is the money?” Leach asked.
The speaker also argued that a “strange transaction” involving several business firms and the school land meant Upshur schools lost about $100,000, and that Fowler hasn’t explained that transaction, either.
Further, Leach said, Fowler worked out a deal with Spade Ranch (which once leased the property) which didn’t get money for the schools. “Exactly who is Dean Fowler looking out for?” he asked.
During a question-and-answer session, The Mirror asked Leach if he had turned over his information to District Attorney Billy Byrd’s office. Leach replied, “I will not be able to address that right now,” and Byrd was unavailable for comment when The Mirror attempted to contact him Monday morning.
Contacted by The Mirror for comment on Leach’s accusations, Fowler issued a written statement Saturday afternoon saying, “I simply will not respond to Mr. Leach’s misstatements and half-truths. I have been in public office for 11 years now, and one thing I learned early on is that I will never make everyone happy. But the citizens of Upshur County have my word that I will always do what I believe is in the best interest of the county, regardless of the criticism that will come with that.
“When it comes to the Upshur County school land, the nine school superintendents and the school boards that benefit from the land have never indicated to me that they are unhappy with any action taken by the Commissioners Court concerning the land.
“I have had many conversations with several of them, in which I have explained and clarified a number of rumors, misstatements and half-truths they have been exposed to. I was fortunate to recently attend and speak to a meeting of the New Diana ISD school board and address questions they had about the land. I would be happy to do the same for any other school district, or truly interested citizen or group of citizens in the county.”
Earlier in his lengthy address, Leach had repeatedly decried “public corruption,” and had said his motive for raising questions about the school land was that he had a “right and duty to hold public officials accountable.”
“If you tolerate public corruption, you have voluntarily become a slave,” he said.
Coalition President Wayne Arnold, in introducing Leach, said he knew of nobody “who’s put in greater effort” than the speaker, and that Leach would provide “insights that you need to take into consideration in the upcoming election.”
Arnold explained the coalition, which is a political action committee, was formed in 2009 to encourage conservatives to work across party lines. The group helps raise funds for candidates.
Before Leach spoke, the coalition took a secret-ballot “straw poll” on the 2014 races for county office to help its board determine which if any candidates to endorse in those contests. The results were not announced, but Arnold said any endorsements by the board will be.