‘Live PD’ will continue to cost Williamson County despite new sheriff elected

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Williamson County will have a new sheriff Jan. 1 after Robert Chody lost his re-election bid in November, but the ramifications of Chody’s tenure, including an unauthorized contract with “Live PD,” will continue to cost the county and taxpayers money for years to come.

Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 2, the county has paid out about $236,000 from its general budget in contract litigation fees. This accounts for at least 20% of all legal fees the county paid in 2020 so far, county auditor reports show. But commissioners warn they anticipate more lawsuits and therefore more fees in the future.

“We’ll be paying Chody-[related] lawsuits for years to come,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Terry Cook said. “They’ve only just started to come out, and more are going to.”

As of Nov. 6, the county has incurred 20 lawsuits and complaints concerning allegations against the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, including Texas Commission on Law Enforcement complaints, general issues within the WCSO and litigation surrounding “Live PD,” data shows.

Of those, three have been settled through financial

means for a combined total of about $303,900; one has been dismissed; one is a notice of claim filed; three are TCOLE complaints; and 12 remain pending.

But officials said they anticipate other lawsuits connected to “Live PD” to present themselves as there is a two-year statute of limitations.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said incoming Williamson County Sheriff Mike Gleason, who will be sworn in on Jan. 1. “We’ll still be facing lawsuits into my first term, long after he’s left. So there will be a continued financial impact on the county as far as lawsuits.”

The total of other “Live PD” costs, such as officer overtime pay, storage for equipment and set up, was not immediately available at the time of print following a Texas Public Information Act request by Community Impact Newspaper.

Double trouble

For the latter half of 2020, two major lawsuits have been filed against Chody.

The first, which began in May, is between the sheriff and the four county commissioners after the court learned Chody had entered into a written contract with Big Fish Entertainment LLC, which produces “Live PD,” to allow filming of the show in the county.

By law, only the court has ultimate authority to enter into contracts on behalf of the county, according to the Texas Association of Counties.

In doing so, Chody sidestepped the court’s authority, which commissioners said they feared would lead to other elected officials attempting something similar if the court did not re-establish precedent.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Russ Boles said he believed the sheriff was obsessed with being on TV.

“In his pursuit of personal fame, he illegally contracted with ‘Live PD’ and may have exposed the county to massive liability,” Boles said during an Oct. 5 commissioner meeting. “There is no question about it: The county has incurred substantial legal fees because of him, to get him to stop.”

On Nov. 10, the court dropped its similar lawsuit against Big Fish Entertainment, which in turn dropped its countersuit against the county.

On that date, Boles said the court was in negotiation with Chody on making a similar deal, but as of print that had not been finalized.

Chody and his attorney for this case, Eric Taube, denied several requests for comment on the lawsuit.

The second major lawsuit ties Chody to the death-in-custody case of Javier Ambler for evidence tampering. This is headed by Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick.

In March 2019, Ambler engaged in a 22-minute car chase with WCSO deputies after failing to dim his headlights to oncoming traffic, documents show. The pursuit continued into Travis County where Ambler ultimately crashed his vehicle and then was tased four times by WCSO deputies before becoming unresponsive, county documents said.

News of Ambler, a Black man, spread 15 months later in June 2020 when protests were breaking out across the country for Black Lives Matter, a movement that was reignited after the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd, who died in police custody and was also Black.

On the night of Ambler’s death, “Live PD” was present and recorded but did not air the incident. At the time, there was no court-approved contract in place.

That recording has since been deleted by “Live PD” due to a clause in the contract that called for the destruction of any unused footage after 30 days.

That night, Chody also called Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell at least six times between 2:21 a.m. and 11:10 a.m., totaling nine minutes, according to phone records obtained by Community Impact Newspaper. Gravell said while he was informed of a death in custody that morning, he did not know “Live PD” was present nor the name Javier Ambler until the incident was reported on by local news outlets in June 2020.

In May 2019, less than two months after Ambler’s death, Gravell’s office put the “Live PD” contract back on the court’s agenda at the request of the WCSO. However, he said it is standard protocol for the judge or a commissioner to sponsor an item to be placed on the agenda.

Gravell has since recused himself on all matters relating to “Live PD” and Ambler, including the commissioners contract lawsuit.

“Obviously a death in custody is a serious matter, but it happened in Travis County jurisdiction, so I knew there would be good investigative measures put in place,” Gravell said. “But I didn’t know ‘Live PD’ was there at the time, and I didn’t know who Javier Ambler was until June of [2020].”

The events from the night of Ambler’s death and those that may have occurred after led a grand jury to indict Chody and Assistant Williamson County Attorney Jason Nassour on Sept. 25. The offense of evidence tampering is a third-degree felony, which carries a punishment range of two to 10 years in state prison or probation and up to a $10,000 fine, documents said.

On the charges brought against him, Chody has claimed the district attorney has no actual proof of evidence tampering. Instead, he said in an Oct. 7 tweet that the district attorney only had evidence in relation to Chody’s contract dispute with the commissioners and had issued the indictment as a political move against his campaign, as his re-election bid was six weeks away. Chody’s Twitter account has since been deactivated.

Dick said the accusation was untrue as his team had yet to turn over its discovery to Chody’s attorneys.

“We didn’t choose this timing,” Dick said during a Sept. 28 news conference. “This incident happened a long time ago; the Williamson County District Attorney’s Office was just notified in May of 2020 of the death. That led us to start an investigation, and we’ve done that diligently as rapidly as we could.”

When asked for an update on the lawsuit following the election results, Chody’s attorney in the matter, Gerry Morris, had no comment. Chody denied several requests for comment on the subject.

How it got here

When Chody first pitched the idea of bringing “Live PD” to the county to commissioners in January 2018, he argued its benefits would include heightened transparency between law enforcement and the community—something he championed—increased recruiting and an opportunity to display Williamson County in a positive light.

“Time and time again, [the WCSO] hears about transparency issues,” Chody said during a Jan. 9, 2018, Commissioners Court meeting. “How much more transparent can we get than willing to be on live TV? We are demonstrating to Williamson County and the world we have nothing to hide.”

While the court was hesitant to greenlight the show, it agreed to initiate a six-month contract with Big Fish Entertainment on Jan. 16, 2018. The contract expired in July 2018.

An agenda item to re-establish the contract with Big Fish Entertainment did not appear on a commissioner agenda until May 2019 when the court voted 3-2 to allow the show to continue in Williamson County. But during that summer, several issues within the WCSO came to light—including those of WCSO Commander Steve Deaton, who has since resigned, for challenging deputies in a meeting to have sex with a female “Live PD” producer and posting graphic and racist images on a personal Facebook page. Two WCSO training academy officers were also reprimanded by the TCOLE for the use of racial slurs and the bullying of cadets.

Following this, the court decided to formally end its contract with the show on Aug. 20, 2019, and the matter appeared settled.

But in April, as the coronavirus pandemic began to pick up in Central Texas, the court learned the county continued to appear on episodes of “Live PD” under the direction of Chody.

After issuing a cease-and-desist order, the commissioners decided to take legal action.

“You just dissed the Commissioners Court,” Cook said during an April 28 court meeting. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic crisis, and you want to throw noncritical personnel into vehicles to travel around the county when we have stay home, stay safe orders.

What now?

In Travis County where Chody could also face charges, a grand jury was called, former Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said Sept. 28. The grand jury will begin to hear evidence in the case at the start of the new year, she added.

“We believe that there are facts supporting tampering in Travis County as well,” Moore said at that time.

In Williamson County, Dick said he fully intends to continue to prosecute Chody even though he leaves office in the new year, adding that he cannot anticipate Chody’s election loss will change anything.

Dick added he believes it will take at least a year or more before the evidence tampering case goes to trial, as the court system is also dealing with complications related to the coronavirus pandemic. This could further delay the start of the trial, and from there it could be a multiyear process, he said.

During a Nov. 30 hearing, the team of Dick, Dee McWilliams and Mike Waldman as well as the defense attorneys for Chody and Nassour agreed to a Jan. 4 date for a pretrial conference hearing to work through several motions filed on each side, including a motion to quash filed by Chody and Nassour.

As for a “Live PD” return to Williamson County, both Gravell and Gleason said there is no future for it as long as they are in office. State Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, has filed a bill in the 87th state Legislature that would ban police contracts with reality TV shows.

“[The WCSO is] just going to go back to providing the services that taxpayers want,” Gleason said. “What they want is to see patrol cars in their neighborhood, and they want to see community involvement, and when they call 911, or 311, they want a quick, efficient, professional response. They don’t want a production. They don’t want to be told, ‘Sorry, we don’t have the resources because [deputies are] out doing something that doesn’t benefit the taxpayer.’”