Metropolis: Wednesday, October 24, 2002
It’s Getting Hot in Here

The DA is accused of writing bad checks while he bashes his contender for violating campaign laws.


It was a “When did you stop beating your wife?” type of question that Martha Roberts threw at her old boss last Monday night as Tarrant County District Attorney Tim Curry fielded questions from the audience in a down-to-the-wire debate with Terri Moore, the challenger for his day job.

“Have you written any more hot checks since I left?” Roberts asked the county’s top law enforcement officer at the Society of Professional Journalists-sponsored debate, held in a private dining room at Joe T. Garcia’s Northside restaurant.

As usual, Curry was unflappable. Turning a cold eye to the former bookkeeper in his hot check division who had been terminated years earlier, Curry said, in a flat unemotional drawl, “I have never written a hot check.”

“Oh, yes, you have, sir,” Roberts shot back as the moderator quickly signaled another questioner, stopping one of the night’s hottest exchanges.

It took place before a roomful of about 125 political junkies in a debate between two tough adversaries, Republican Curry, 63, with 30 years on the job, and Democrat Moore, 43, a one-time chief prosecutor in his office and a former federal prosecutor. With just two weeks left in the campaign, cries of dirty dealings, past and present, are emanating from both camps.

Roberts, a Moore supporter, worked in the D.A.’s hot check office as head bookkeeper from 1980 until 1995. She has accused Curry of bouncing checks against — of all the ironic places — his office’s own hot check fund, an accusation Curry denies.

Prosecutor Kerry Armstrong, chief of the hot check office since 1977, said the money in the fund, which can total thousands of dollars on any given day, comes from cash collected from bad-check offenders plus fees, which range from $10 to $75 per check and are set by the state. The money goes back to those who got stiffed; the fees pay for the office and the staff’s salaries. The office, he said, “was set up by Curry in 1976 with the promise that it would pay for itself.” Since its inception it’s collected more than $65 million in restitution for bad checks, Armstrong said, with annual fees running between $500,000 and $600,000 to operate the office. Curry touts it as one of his better accomplishments.

Roberts said it was also his private ATM machine, with Curry frequently cashing personal checks out of the fund even when he didn’t have the money to cover them, she said.

The former bookkeeper, whom Curry called “a troublemaker,” left with at least one piece of evidence to support her charges: a copy of one of the bounced checks. The copy shows a personal check drawn on Curry’s account at Texas Commerce Bank for $100 cash, dated Feb. 8, 1990, and signed by Curry. It was presented twice for payment, returned twice for insufficient funds, and finally stamped: “Endorsement cancelled.”

At that time, she said, she was having problems with others in the office over her complaints of unprofessionalism and lack of oversight in the office. “I just wanted some proof of some of my concerns,” she said. Curry’s casual attitude toward the integrity of the fund was one of them. “He’s the county’s top law enforcement officer, and he was bouncing checks out of his own hot check fund. I was flabbergasted and disgusted.”

She’s leveling the accusations now because Curry is facing a serious contender, she said. “Now, with Terri, there’s someone to get behind who can beat him,” she said. “I want people to know what he’s like. I want this guy out of office.”

In an interview from his office, Curry said that he did use the fund to cash checks, as did others in the office. “It was a place to get quick cash,” he said, “back before ATMs were everywhere.” He also remembers the $100 check. It did bounce, he said, but it was “a bank mistake. ... I have a letter of apology from the bank,” he said. “I was truthful when I answered her. This is a charge from someone who’s very bitter toward me, who caused a lot of trouble in the office. ... This just shows how desperate Terri’s getting.”

Roberts, who is married to retired FWPD officer J. D. Roberts, is even more incensed, however, over what she said was favorable treatment by the D.A.’s office for Curry’s grown children who had their own round of hot check troubles between 1991 and 1993. “They weren’t prosecuted when others with much lesser amounts were,” Roberts said, “and their fees were waived.”

Records from the Tarrant County District Attorney Hot Check Division show Timothy Cullen Curry Jr., who was 28 at the time, with a list of 24 hot checks turned in to the D.A.’s office by various merchants between Oct. 10, 1991, and Jan. 8, 1992, totaling $719.86. Fees of $215 were waived. There is no record that any of the checks were ever paid. During that time, Elizabeth Ann Curry wrote $300 in hot checks, which were paid off in April 1993, when she was also 28. A $30 fee was waived.

Neither of the Curry children was prosecuted for hot checks, even though records from that time show that the D.A.’s office prosecuted at least one first-time hot check writer for as little as $30.74 and that an employee of the D.A.’s office was fired for writing two hot checks in November 1992, totaling $52.46.

Cullen didn’t return phone calls from Fort Worth Weekly; Elizabeth couldn’t be reached. Their father, however, was candid about his children’s earlier troubles, denying that they received favorable treatment from his office.

“My boy went to the pen on another charge,” Curry said, “and [the hot checks and fees] were probably bundled up with everything else and dropped, written off. That’s what normally happens in those cases because if they’re in jail, there’s usually no way to collect.” It was common knowledge back then, Curry said, that his son had a drug problem. “We never tried to hide it.” But today, Curry said, “he’s turned his life around, cleaned up his act. I’m very proud of what he’s done with his life.” As for his daughter, Curry said, “She never had an act to clean up.” Curry doesn’t know anything about why her fees were waived. Those decisions, he said, were left up to the prosecutor who headed the hot check division. “But there was no pressure from me.”

Asked why Curry’s children’s fees were waived when others weren’t, Armstrong said, “That’s something I wouldn’t know anything about.”

In the meantime, Curry has his own accusation to throw at Moore: violating federal campaign laws.

Curry said that Moore recently abused the bulk mailing privileges of the non-profit Tarrant County Central Labor Council to send out campaign literature. “It’s against the law,” Curry said, “to use a nonprofit to promote a political candidate. ...We have been advised that the postal inspector is looking into it.”

Not so, said Moore. It’s true, she said, that one of her mailings used the CLC’s bulk mail stamp, but she paid for it out of her campaign. “It’s common practice to use others’ bulk mail permits,” she said, “but my campaign paid for it, not the CLC.” Moore said that postal inspector Joel Allice did get a complaint, but he told her that he found nothing illegal to investigate. “I’m comfortable that we haven’t broken the law,” she said, “and so is the post office.”

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