Sometimes — in every journalist’s career — you have to address uncomfortable subjects.
Some journalists thrive on these types of stories — it’s why they got into the business. They love the watchdog aspect of being a member of the media. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can be easy to go too far at times.
While a role of the media is to hold our leaders — elected or appointed — accountable, there are different ways to approach this. It can be like walking a tightrope.
Some choose to become adversarial and become attack dog journalists. Others choose to avoid the difficult questions and subjects altogether and can become lapdog journalists.
Neither approach is in the public’s best interest. The reason why we even publish a paper is to keep people informed of the important events in the community — whether it is news, entertainment, sports, features, or what local businesses have to offer through advertisements.
Fortunately, most of the things happening locally are of the good news variety, but in an imperfect world, there is also bad news.
I have a healthy respect for authority. I am certainly not of the attack mode variety, but when there are important issues of interest to the community, I do not want to operate as a lapdog, either.
A balanced approach is the key — giving people the benefit of the doubt, but also being able to raise difficult questions when needed.
For a couple of months, I have been trying to get what information I could about the status of suspended Live Oak County auditor Tragina Smith.
I do not know Smith very well, having only seen her briefly at a few Live Oak County Commissioners Court meetings, but I will say all of our encounters were cordial.
About three months ago, Ms. Smith became of interest in the community for another reason, when she was indicted by a Live Oak County Grand Jury for theft by deception.
Although she is not suspected of stealing county funds, she is charged with forging county documents (related to insurance costs) to overcharge her ex-husband for fees related to child support. There was a thorough investigation by Live Oak County Sheriff Larry Busby.
If this had merely been an issue involving two private citizens — and ex-spouses — it likely would not have risen to the level of being a newsworthy story.
However, because Ms. Smith was serving as county auditor when the ongoing theft allegedly occurred — and because county documents were allegedly forged in the commission of the crime, that elevated the subject to a different level.
Getting information — or anyone to speak on the record — about the case has been difficult. I’ve tried to get updates, but because of the circumstances, it hasn’t been easy.
That’s because Ms. Smith — although she is paid with Live Oak County taxpayer money — was actually appointed by district judges. The reason behind that is supposed to be to ensure the auditor is impartial and not beholden to any county officials, but in this case, it means there is a different standard at work.
Ms. Smith is paid by the county, but she can’t be summarily dismissed by the county’s leaders. The district judges must be involved in that decision.
The wheels of justice sometimes move slowly. And believe me, district judges often have a full slate of cases to deal with, so this matter has proceeded at a pace that has frustrated some county residents.
A hearing for Ms. Smith is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 5, at the Live Oak County Justice Center.
Hopefully, there will be some answers at that time, but for now, things seem to be in limbo. Maybe something is happening behind the scenes, but, if so, the public is not being updated.
It is the policy of The Progress to not run anonymous letters to the editor. People who submit a letter must use their name and this must be verifiable in order for a letter to appear in print.
However, when the subject is deemed to be in the public interest, I can make reference to a letter we have received, even if we do not plan to publish that letter in its entirety because it was sent anonymously.
The letter notes that Ms. Smith was placed on administrative leave over three months ago with pay, and that she continues to be paid with county funds although she has been suspended.
The letter also notes that the county commissioners court has had meetings with the district judges, but because the district judges are the administrators of county auditors’ offices statewide, the county leadership itself is unable to take any action regarding Ms. Smith. It adds that this means the county is required to continue paying Ms. Smith while she remains on leave.
This is a sticky situation, because while there is strong evidence against Ms. Smith, there has not been a conviction against her nor has there been a plea entered into in a court of law. Like any other citizen, whether she is eventually found to be guilty or not, she has the right to due process of law.
The letter writer is upset that county money continues to be paid to Ms. Smith.
I can certainly understand the anger and frustration of the letter writer. I agree that it is most unfortunate (even egregious) if a guilty person who committed theft — even to the point of falsifying county documents — continues to receive pay from the county.
But, like anyone else, the accused still has the right to her day in court. Perhaps the case is cut and dry. Maybe things do seem to be moving at a snail’s pace, and it can raise righteous indignation when taxpayers are able to rightly claim “but it’s our money ...”
All that is true. I may be naive, but I believe the district judges do have our best interests at heart. Until proven otherwise, I give them the benefit of the doubt — the same as I would to anyone else.
I sat in District Judge Janna Whatley’s court for several days during a capital murder trial, and also saw her interacting with potential jurors during jury selection. What I witnessed was someone who showed compassion and an appreciation for people’s time.
I can’t help but believe she also has the same appreciation for their rights as taxpayers.
I haven’t had the opportunity to meet Judge Starr Bauer and have only met Judge Patrick Flanigan briefly, but I know they are also a part of the process to ensure that justice is served in the case involving Ms. Smith.
Maybe Ms. Smith would have to repay county funds if she is found guilty. That is ultimately up to judges to decide.
Hopefully, this ongoing case will be resolved in a timely and efficient manner.
The problem is, of course, one person’s definition of timely and efficient may not be the same as someone else’s. And when taxpayer money is involved, it carries even greater urgency.